A new initiative is encouraging people in Montreal and Ottawa to film police interventions.
“Basically, we’re the neighbourhood watch for the police,” said Joel Debellefeuille, founder of the Red Coalition, a group that fights racism and discrimination.
He’s encouraging people to take their phones out and hit record when police show up, and send the videos to the new Red Coalition Watchdog Program.
The goal, Debellefeuille said, is to compile images of officers breaching peoples’ rights and to add them to a database.
“This is our retaliatory pushback that can assist citizens that are caught in unfortunate situations that could be due to discrimination, racial profiling, just all sorts of different issues that are involved with law enforcement,” Debellefeuille explained to Global News.
He points out that citizens have the right to film police as long as they’re not interfering with their work. The Red Coalition wants people in the Montreal and Ottawa areas to send videos using Whatsapp.
The coalition will amplify them using social media, and in some cases help people through the complaint process.
“I think the more eyes that are out there to rely on for that video evidence where law enforcement are kind of acting out of the lines, this will be that tool to keep everybody in check,” said Debellefeuille.
He brings up the example of a man from Terrebonne, north of Montreal, who claimed he was stopped by police 37 times in one year. The case led to eight officers being cited for discrimination and racial profiling.
“Imagine we had multiple citizens around that area that saw that. Those 37 times probably would have been cut down to maybe five,” said Debellefeuille.
Former Montreal police officer André Durocher is not a big fan of the Watchdog Program idea.
He worries videos will appear without context, pointing to a time he tackled someone who had just robbed a store.
“The person was screaming police brutality,” he recounted. “When you are looking for these situations, human nature being what it is, people tend to create those moments.”
He said people should report police brutality to the Ethics Commissioner.
“You can try and create a situation and put it on TikTok or YouTube and be the hero of the day, or you can take all the details, report the police officer to the Ethics Commissioner and get justice,” Durocher said.
In an emailed statement, Montreal Police told Global News it takes all complaints against its officers seriously, and said it’s important to understand the context of an event before drawing conclusions. It said investigations should go through proper channels.
Researcher Ted Rutland, however, says police often don’t face consequences even when their actions are reported.
“The more that we can circulate videos of the police being harmful, the more that we have a mechanism not just to achieve consequences against those particular officers within the existing system, but to bring about real change in the way the policing operates in our city and in our society,” Rutland told Global News.
The City of Montreal said it welcomes citizen efforts to help fight discrimination, but advises caution.
“Our administration is firmly committed to the fight against discrimination in all its forms, and we welcome citizen initiatives in this direction. However we need to be careful,” said Alain Vaillancourt, Montreal’s Executive Committee member responsible for public security.
“The cameras can be used to share information, but it is important to work on the admissibility of the evidence in order to avoid hindering the work of the police.”
He pointed to plans for Montreal police to begin being equipped with body cameras by the end of the year. Vaillancourt said the goal is to coordinate with Quebec’s public security ministry to implement the project in a way that does not hinder police officers, and assures the images captured are admissible in court.