MONTREAL MIRROR: Anthony Griffin, 19

Police on  their back:  Mistrust and resentment towards the cops still linger among the city’s blacks, 15 years after Anthony Griffin’s death
by PATRICK LEJTENYI

The city changed on the morning of Nov. 11, 1987. According to court documents, at around 5:30 a.m., Anthony Griffin, a 19-year-old black man, jumped a cab but was arrested by police about an hour later. Griffin, after lying about his identity because of an outstanding warrant against him, was placed in the back seat of a police cruiser and then taken to a police station. Upon arriving in the station parking lot, he bolted, and only stopped when Constable Allan Gosset yelled, while aiming his .38 police revolver, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” after twice yelling at Griffin to halt. Griffin stopped and was turning around when he was shot in the head. He was pronounced dead at 11:45 a.m. at the Jewish General. Gosset was charged with criminal negligence but, in 1993, was acquitted on appeal. Racism was dismissed as a factor in Griffin’s death.

The shooting created an uproar among the city’s black community, which had long complained of the open hostility between themselves and the police, especially among young black males. What made matters worse were the subsequent reports of widespread racism within the police, including shooting-practice targets depicting caricatures of blacks superimposed with bulls-eyes.

The Anthony Griffin shooting raised serious questions about how bad the relations really were between Montreal’s black community and its police force. It sparked several inquiries and commissions, and a top-down change was initiated to ease tensions between the two groups.

Were they successful? While the more immediate changes were to switch police revolvers from a .38 to a .357, which was more difficult to fire and less accident-prone, and switching the investigation of Montreal police shootings of civilians from that force to the provincial Sûreté du Québec, the police have only recently begun to meet regularly with black community leaders, and many blacks still complain of unfair treatment and continued racial profiling.

The wrong profile

Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, says that while relations have certainly improved since the shooting, that’s in large part because they couldn’t have gotten much worse. “The situation changed because the amount of serious crimes against the community, as in the case of Anthony Griffin, has not increased,” he says. “But in relations to the average cop on the street, there are still a lot of complaints.”

Ask any leading member of the black community what the number one problem they face in relation to the police is, and they will answer, “Racial profiling.” A term relatively unknown until last year, this is the practice of targeting specific ethnic, linguistic or religious groups for particular scrutiny by law enforcement officials. Racial profiling of Arabs following the Sept. 11 attacks was met with anger by Muslim groups around the world, and recent revelations of the practice among the Toronto police department by the Toronto Star has led to a lawsuit against Canada’s largest daily.

Montreal police insist they are not targeting specific groups. “We only have tensions with the criminal element of a community,” says Montreal police Lieutenant Serge Boulerice, of Station 25 in Côte-des-Neiges. “There aren’t any tensions with other members.”

Still, black community leaders say that’s not the case. “There’s a whole lot of misunderstanding, because the police have unlimited authority,” says Egbert Gaye, the editor of the West-End black paper Community Contact. “They still stop black people arbitrarily because they’re driving a certain type of car. These are the kinds of stories we shouldn’t be hearing.”

It’s the feeling of being constantly targeted that has the black community, Gaye says, still at odds with the police. “There’s no trust there,” he says. “The police can’t garner any kind of support if they continue with practices like profiling and heavy-handed behaviour. There is a separation between the police and our community that is the result of a history of mistrust. And if there’s no trust, if young kids can’t trust an institution as valuable and important as the police, something’s wrong.”

Long-term problems

Montreal has the second-biggest black population in the country, after Toronto, with a history dating back some 360 years, when French colonists brought their slaves to the New World. According to the 1996 census, there are over 120,000 blacks living here, more than one-fifth of the national total. However, they are still lagging behind in education, income and employment. A demographic census analysis study released last year by the McGill Consortium for Ethnicity and Strategic Social Planning says, “Blacks are less likely to have completed high school or graduated from university than non-blacks. 10.8 per cent of all blacks in Montreal have obtained a university degree. This rate is 40 per cent higher in the Montreal population as a whole where 15.6 per cent have obtained a university degree.” Other statistics indicate they are underemployed, with a 26.5 per cent unemployment rate, and earn less (“Blacks in Montreal working full-time on average earn 30 per cent less than non-blacks ($26,181 and $36,839, respectively),” the report says).

Combined with a justice system that is predominantly white—there is only one black judge in the province, for instance—blacks today still feel that they are getting the short end of many sticks.

“There has never been outreach advertising for getting kids enlisted in the [police] force,” Gaye says. “All institutions should reflect the population. Police hiring policies should at least be complemented with strong cultural sensitivity training programs. The police have got to know the kids, and they’ve got to train the guys better.”

Dan Philip also feels that the police are so strong that attempts to effect change from within often come up against a brick wall. “The government doesn’t want to take any serious action that would disturb the [police union],” he says. “The system feeds within itself, it protects itself, and it protects those who abuse the system.”

From open war to quiet resentment

According to Gaye, if Anthony Griffin’s death did anything, it brought to light something that was well known at the time, but remained unspoken. “Fifteen years ago, it seemed like open warfare between blacks and the police,” he says. “And only one side was armed. The community always felt under siege at the time.”

“There was a feeling of anger, at a certain time of hopelessness,” Philip adds. “People were outraged [at the $27,000 compensation given to Griffin’s mother, Gloria Augustus], they felt the lives of black people were not respected.”

That has changed, at least somewhat. Police in the Côte-des-Neiges area have been meeting with black leaders on a monthly basis to discuss a wide range of issues, from drug use to violence to allegations of harassment.

“We’ve established action plans, developed ideas on how we can work together, improve communications and get our messages out,” says Boulerice. “It’s going well. One of our objectives is to get members of the community, if they have problems, to go to their leaders who can bring it up in meetings with the police. It’s a solution that we hope can avoid frustrations or problems, and I think we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the result.”

He points out that it is the responsibility of every commander to get to know the community leaders of the area they are policing, and to work with them to improve relations. One method was to hold regular basketball games between police and local youth, a practice that has been going on for years, says Peter Flegel, a black youth activist.

But despite heartening words from police, there is still a long way to go before warm relations are enjoyed between the police and the black community. “I think that, unlike 15 years ago, when there was more or less open hostility between police and certain sectors of the community, now it’s more hidden,” Gaye says. Any change that must be accomplished to reverse this, he warns, will have to be gradual and psychological. “The message has to get right down to the guys on the street, with proper training, cultural sensitivity and realizing that every black guy they see is not a potential criminal or a threat.”

Original article here

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