Opinion: Camara case reveals systemic racism that SPVM must address

It is hard for me to imagine the horror that Mamadi III Fara Camara and those close to him experienced when he was arrested on the false and highly public accusation of attempted murder of a police officer.

It makes me shudder to think, as Yves Boisvert observed in La Presse, that without a Ministry of Transportation video recording and without a belated review by investigators "Mr. Camara would still be detained. Maybe until his trial… Maybe convicted.”

We have to say out loud what Mr. Boisvert and other commentators have only suggested between the lines: we are faced here with another case that reveals the systemic racism produced by the SPVM.

I weigh my words carefully.

I am not accusing any individual police officer or investigator of being racist. At issue are the policies and administration of the SPVM.

I ask myself a relatively simple but decisive question: if my son, of the same age as Mr. Camara, had called 911 to report the assault of a police officer, and if he had been found at the scene of his traffic infraction – without a weapon – when the other police officers arrived, would he have been arrested and put in prison for six days despite his explanations and despite his status as a young professional with no previous record?

The answer is no.

And would a witness providing exculpatory evidence have been ignored? The answer is doubly no.

My son is white and he comes from a bourgeois Quebec background. In his case, he might have remained a suspect, but the police would have sought stronger evidence before throwing him in jail.

Mr. Camara could well have been one of my brilliant Nigerian doctoral students, who I hope will never cross paths with the Montreal police.

Consider another very recent case, that of Mr. Kwadwo Yeboah, stopped, arrested and handcuffed in front of his teenage daughter for no reason whatsoever, except perhaps because he "drives a car too luxurious for a black man," a situation considered so serious by the SPVM that six police officers were on the scene to arrest a man who was going to pick up take-out food.

One can only imagine with dismay the violence of their response if Mr. Yeboah had had the temerity to express himself with greater, and justified anger.

Sadly, there is a growing litany of such examples.

As a member of the Quebec Human Rights Commission from 2017-2018, I saw many cases in which the question "would the same treatment be reserved for my daughter, my son or me?” received an unequivocal negative answer.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the huge demonstrations this summer in Montreal and around the world, Montrealers could hope to see the SPVM put its house in order so as to avoid cases like those of Mr. Camara or Mr. Yeboah.

But despite a new Policy on Police Checks announced with some fanfare by the SPVM this past summer, the problem within the police force persists.

A special investigation into Mr. Camara's case is certainly warranted, but the stakes are higher.

We need a fundamental reform of the SPVM. It must become a basic reflex of every police officer right to the top of the pyramid to ask the question: does my action reproduce racial profiling or have a differential impact on racialized people?

Each member of the SPVM must be accountable if the answer turns out to be yes. The case of Mr. Camara also demonstrates that the SPVM should reconsider its report recommending against the deployment of body cameras for the police.

The helplessness experienced by Mamadi Camara, Mr. Yeboah and others is a stain on everyone in the city. These are my friends, my neighbours, co-parents at the daycare, and sometimes my students.

Their treatment infuriates me, and I hope it infuriates all my fellow Montrealers. 

Richard Janda, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University

(A version of this article originally appeared in French in La Presse.)

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