The Montreal police service (SPVM) said it has opened an administrative investigation after officers were filmed detaining a Black man suspected of stealing his own vehicle and then being unable to release him because they misplaced the key to the handcuffs.
“We are sensitive to the upheaval and emotion experienced by the citizen as well as to the reactions caused by the event,” the SPVM said in a tweet Saturday evening in announcing the probe.
The tweet comes after a video recording of the police altercation was circulating widely on social media and prompting emotional reactions from Montreal residents, civil rights groups, and politicians.
Quebec’s public safety minister, François Bonnardel, is also looking into the incident, his office said in a statement on the weekend.
“The video that is circulating raises questions. We are very sensitive to the comments that are circulating,” said the minister’s spokesperson in an email to CTV News.
“We will make the necessary verifications with the SPVM so that they can shed light on the context surrounding the events that were filmed.”
The video, which was recorded Thursday and does not show the events that led to the man being detained, shows the man and two plainclothes officers standing in a commercial parking lot beside the vehicle. The man, who has his hands cuffed behind him, is demanding police explain why he was stopped.
“Is it because I’m Black?” asked the man, more than once, who repeated that the car belongs to him.
“Not at all,” responded the plain-clothes officer.
“Then what is it?” the handcuffed man continued. “A vehicle I bought, you say it looks like a stolen vehicle … that is so humiliating.”
On Friday, Montreal police wrote in a series of tweets that it was aware of a video of the police interaction being shared online and that the force “immediately” looked into the officers’ conduct.
“Yesterday afternoon, two expert motor vehicle theft investigators noticed a Honda CRV SUV parked in a mall parking lot,” police wrote. “The unoccupied vehicle showed typical and obvious attempted theft marks on one of the locks (damage).”
“Before they could finish their checks, a citizen walked up to it to take possession of it,” the post said. “He was temporarily detained for investigation … The citizen was released unconditionally and without charges once the checks were completed.”
The man’s Honda SUV is among the most stolen automobiles in Quebec, a police spokesperson told CTV.
OFFICERS MISPLACED KEY
Before he was released, however, the officers were unable to release his cuffs, because they didn’t have the key.
“If it’s his car, why is he still in cuffs?” asks the man filming the altercation.
“That’s my question,” said the man to the camera, visibly upset. “What is that? They don’t have the key … What kind of way to work is that?”
Former RCMP and OPP officer Alain Babineau is shown in Montreal, on Thursday, July 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
The officers repeated that they were waiting for the key to be delivered.
It was an “embarrassing moment” for police, according to Alain Babineau, a former RCMP officer and current director on issues of racial profiling and public safety at Red Coalition, an advocacy group against racial profiling.
“Professionally, that’s very embarrassing,” said Babineau.
“I can tell you, these things have happened in my career, not necessarily to me, but other officers who I was with,” he added.
“I want police officers to do the best they can, and most of the time they do,” he said. “But, I think in this whole encounter, there are a lot of questions around the professionalism which the officers displayed.”
When other officers arrived, the man was un-cuffed and then released.
“It’s over, it’s over,” said one of the officers.
“No,” responded the man. “You’ve humiliated me.”
Babineau says it’s hard to say from the video whether the methods used by police were inappropriate.
The video begins at a point where the investigation appeared to be already resolved. He said that it’s not uncommon to detain people suspected of stealing vehicles and that the use of handcuffs is discretionary.
“There’s that piece of information that we don’t know: what drove the officers to put this person in handcuffs?” said Babineau.
However, he said that people ought to look carefully at interactions between police and people of colour, especially when that person is considered a suspect, “because the reality of racial profiling is well documented across Canada.”
LOCAL, PROVINCIAL POLITICIANS REACT
Several residents as well as municipal and provincial elected officials reacted to the video, including Quebec’s minister responsible for the fight against racism.
In a tweet, Christopher Skeete said, “Like many citizens, I have questions following this filmed intervention,” adding that he was in contact with the Minister of Public Safety “in order to shed light on the circumstances of this event.”
Alain Vaillancourt, a member of the City of Montreal’s executive committee who is responsible for public safety, called the footage in the online video “disturbing.”
“As the first police force in Quebec to have adopted an arrest policy, we must do better,” he wrote on Twitter.
He, too, called on Montreal police to look into the events that led up to the man being detained because the incident “affects the feeling of trust between the police and our Montreal communities.”
Meanwhile, Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade said on social media, “Getting to the bottom of things is the bare minimum. Change things for real, that’s what should be done.”
In response to the fierce political reaction, the union representing Montreal police officers called on elected officials to stop publicly expressing their opinions of the police operation until they know all of the facts. The Fraternité des policiers et policières de Montréal said such commentary was “fueling police disengagement.”
‘TOO QUICK TO USE THE HANDCUFFS’
Civil rights activist Fo Niemi, who has for years defended several people in the past who accused Quebec police officers of racial profiling, said this is the first time he has seen a case of officers losing the key to the handcuffs.
After watching the video, he said there are many unanswered questions about the interaction and suggested the man in the video file a complaint with the Police Ethics Commissioner to have the matter investigated to determine whether or not the interception was racially motivated.
Fo Niemi is the co-founder of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR). (CTV News)
“We don’t know what happened before this arrest. We don’t know how long they tailed or tracked this car or they followed this man, how long this surveillance so we don’t know exactly what happened,” said Niemi, co-founder of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR).
He said it appeared the officers reacted too quickly.
“I guess we can say that some officers are a little bit, shall we say, handcuff-happy. Too quick to use the handcuffs before they realize they don’t have the key and secondly we don’t know whether the use of handcuffs in this case was justified,” he said.
He also said the ordeal raises “serious” health and safety concerns as the officers didn’t have the key readily available in the event that the man suffered medical distress.
With files from CTV Montreal’s Matt Grillo
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