Groups say Montreal cops should apologize to Black man suspected of stealing own car

Montreal police say they've opened an administrative investigation into an incident in which a Black man was handcuffed after officers suspected he was stealing his own car.

The force said the officers involved were unable to release the man immediately after determining the car was his because they did not have a handcuff key.

"We are sensitive to the distress and the emotion this citizen went through and the reactions caused by this event," the police service wrote in a Saturday evening Twitter post.

Civil rights groups have called for police to apologize to the man and raised concerns the incident marks an instance of racial profiling.

A video of the incident circulating on social media shows the man, still in handcuffs, angrily asking the officers why they cuffed him before verifying the vehicle belonged to him and asking whether he was handcuffed because he is Black.

Quebec's Public Safety Minister François Bonnardel said Saturday morning that he will look into what happened and Alain Vaillancourt, the member of the city's executive committee responsible for public safety, said he has asked the police service to investigate the incident and ensure similar ones don't happen again.

"A situation like the one experienced by this citizen affects the sense of trust between the police and our communities in Montreal," he wrote on Twitter. "This bond of trust is essential, not only for police work, but also for the convivial character of our city."

The video, which appears to have been filmed in the parking lot of the Marché Central shopping complex, shows six minutes of the interaction between the man and the police officers.

As it opens, the man is complaining about his treatment.

“Are you injured? You’re not injured,” one of the officers said in reply.

“It hurts,” the man said, slightly raising his arms handcuffed behind his back.

"I didn't even hit you," the officer responds.

“It’s my car, why did you brutalize me when I arrived, that’s my question,” the man said.

One of the officers tells the man he will explain the situation. The man then asks the officers to take the handcuffs off before he speaks to them, but the officers soon realize they don't have a key for the cuffs.

As they wait for other officers to come unlock the cuffs, the man asks whether he is being treated this way because he is Black.

“Not at all,” one of the officers said.

On Friday, Montreal police said two car theft investigators found an unoccupied Honda SUV in a mall parking lot that had damage around one of its locks consistent with an attempted theft.

The department said before officers determined whether it was stolen, a citizen came to take possession of the vehicle.

"It's at that moment that he was temporarily detained for investigative purposes by the two police officers. The citizen was released unconditionally and without charge once the verifications were completed. The investigation is finished," the department said in a post on Twitter.

Alain Babineau, the racial profiling and public safety director at anti-racial profiling group Red Coalition and a 27-year veteran of the RCMP, said that while police can handcuff someone who poses a threat, that escalates the interaction into an arrest.

"Investigative detention has to be very brief and the person should be allowed to leave. So once the person is in handcuffs, it's no longer an investigative detention but an arrest. and then, as an arrest, it triggers the right to counsel and so on," said Babineau, who became a jurist after retiring from the federal police force.

He said he worries the officers handcuffed the man because they perceived him as potentially violent.

One element of racial profiling, he said, is the notion that Black males are "perceived as being intrinsically violent and so that's why the question of racial profiling has to be raised."

Babineau said police need to apologize to the man and police managers need to sit down with the officers in the video to review their powers and obligations.

"There's something within the culture of policing that says, 'we're never wrong,' and that is what is wrong with with our culture and that has to change," Babineau said in an interview on Saturday.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal-based civil rights organization Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said he hopes the man will file a complaint with the police ethics commissioner so an investigation can be conducted into what happened before the interactions captured on film.

And he said the police command should apologize to the man.

"This incident once again shows that Black drivers in Montreal cannot feel safe and be free to drive their own car without being subject to some kind of police control and profiling," he said. "This is what all the people who have turned to us for help told us: it's the violation of that sense of freedom and security that makes them lose trust in the police."

The union representing Montreal police officers said the comments by politicians risk fueling "police disengagement."

"In a society governed by the rule of law, elected officials should refrain from sharing their impressions on the character of a police operation until all the facts are known," the Fraternité des policiers et policières de Montréal said in a post on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An early version of this article referred to Alain Babineau as a lawyer. He is, in fact, a jurist