Fady Dagher was sworn in as Montreal's new police chief Thursday, saying officers must understand the reality of their community and the issues people face, like mental illness and precarious living.
"In 2023, the population must also understand the difficulty and reality of policing," he said.
People have lost trust in the police after incidents like the killing of George Floyd by officers in the United States, and now police must rebuild links with the population while addressing racial profiling, he said.
"Racial profiling is not just a police problem," he said. "It's a problem for all of society and only one part of a bigger puzzle — discrimination in all forms."
He said it's up to everybody to work together hand-in-hand at improving society.
Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to Lebanese parents, Dagher said he is extremely proud to be the first person of colour to take the position of Montreal police chief.
"If I can help young people to believe in themselves by occupying this position, then why not? It makes me very proud," he said.
Dagher took the oath during a ceremony at Marché Bonsecours, in the presence of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who said she is confident in his experience, expertise and leadership.
It's his extensive background, she said, that will help as the police service, known as the SPVM, to overcome problems such as the rise in gun and youth violence.
"He will continue the work, with our police force, to implement our Montreal model of urban security," Plante wrote on Twitter after the ceremony. "He has my full confidence to carry out this task."
25-year history with SPVM
Dagher has a 25-year history with the SPVM, but he rose to local fame in recent years for his work as chief of police in Longueuil, Que., where he implemented a model of community policing that attracted the attention of the provincial government and police services across the country.
Before that, he had worked his way up to Montreal's assistant chief. Then in 2015, he was among the finalists for the position of chief, but Philippe Pichet was picked instead. Dagher went on to become chief of the Longueuil police in 2017.
Quebec's public security minister, Geneviève Guilbault, called Dagher's approach to community policing in Longueuil avant-garde in June 2021 and, as she announced a hefty provincial investment in the program, said she hoped other municipalities and police forces would adopt it.
WATCH | Fady Dagher explains his approach and plans:
Dagher's project, which began as a pilot project in 2019, was called RÉSO. Its goal was for certain officers to work within specific communities and to get to know them well enough to be able to refer vulnerable populations to resources other than the police before matters became criminal.
Meanwhile, the SPVM had seen a revolving door in its leadership. Pichet was suspended in 2017 and replaced, temporarily, by the head of the Sûreté du Québec, Martin Prud'homme.
Then, Sylvain Caron took over in 2018 and served four years before retiring for personal reasons in March. Since last spring, Sophie Roy has served as interim chief as the city began the process of picking a new leader for the force.
A selection committee was formed to pick the new chief. It was made up of three senior civil servants and three elected municipal officials.
Encouraging people to join police force
Fady Dagher is the 42nd chief of the SPVM, which has some 4,400 police officers.
Dagher said addressing armed violence in Montreal will be among his top priorities. He said there are too many illegal weapons on the island and "we'll go get them one by one if we need to."
"But don't forget about other kinds of violence — conjugal, cybercrime, also daily violence that creates repercussions — and road safety [that] creates drama that could be avoided and hurts both victims and those responsible."
He said there is an immense amount of work to be done, but it's possible to succeed with time and patience.
Dagher encouraged young Quebecers of all backgrounds to consider joining the police force and encouraged those studying at the province's police academy to come to Montreal.
The SPVM has struggled to recruit new officers, and the number of officers has been on the decline. This month there are 45 fewer officers on the streets of Montreal than a year ago, according to the police union.
Life is more expensive in the city and the work is more intense, more complex and under more media scrutiny, Dagher said.
"But remind yourself why you signed up. I imagine you wanted to make a difference," he said. "It's here that you can make a big difference. We need you here now."
Jacques Duchesneau, who was chief of Montreal's police force before becoming a provincial politician in 2002, said Dagher has a vision and "is a man of action."
"He is going to deliver," he said. "I am convinced he was the right pick for the job."
He said becoming a police chief is knowing you are going to face crisis and you need to be ready for the job. He described Dagher's appointment as a "new era."
Fo Niemi, head of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said Dagher's acceptance speech touched on the right priorities for the city.
"The message is very clear that police need the public and the public needs the police and we have to work together to solve common problems and challenges," he said. "And he outlined those challenges in very clear terms."