The past week saw a pair of dramatic announcements about policing and public security in Quebec. 

The first, chaired by Quebec Minister of Public Security Geneviève Guilbault, promised an “unprecedented strike” against guns and gangs. The strike will be funded by $90 million in new investments over four years, all of it going to police. 

The second, chaired by Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, laid out her party’s four-year plan for public security in the city. The $110 million plan, while it focussed on police repression, makes overtures toward community crime prevention and better police-community relations. 

The two plans, despite their somewhat different packaging, ultimately contribute to the same repressive policing strategy. It’s important to see their connections.

The backdrop for the two announcements is a moral panic about guns and gangs that has acquired a life of its own in the past year. The panic, nourished by the media, the police, and elected officials across Quebec, posits that gun crime has reached unprecedented levels in Montreal due to violent rivalries between largely Black street gangs. 

When data are presented to supposedly support these claims, they are often reported incorrectly. Even when they aren’t, they focus on a single category of gun crime: discharge of a firearm. This category, which doesn’t involve an intended victim, has indeed increased significantly since 2018. Overall gun crime, however, is actually down 20% over the same period—far from the crisis scenario that has dominated headlines.

Black lives matter protest in Montreal in May 2020 by police headquarters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Derek Robbins

Stoking a racialized panic

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a right wing provincial party with no representatives in Montreal, has seized on and enlarged the sense of crisis in the province’s largest city. Three announcements since October 2020 have focused on guns and gangs in Montreal, providing a total of $160 million of new money to police repression and supporting a series of new guns and gangs squads, most of them combining personnel from the provincial Surêté du Québec (SQ) police and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). 

The centerpiece of last week’s announcement is the creation of a new squad, dubbed CENTAURE, which will bring together personnel from the SPVM and four other police forces—all under the direction of the SQ.

To emphasize the seriousness of the crime problem, the CAQ has compared the current situation to the biker wars of the 1990s, which killed at least 162 people over eight years. Notably, the major police operation against the bikers in those years, Carcajou, had a four-year budget of $10 million and involved 44 police officers—considerably less than the new operation against street gangs. 

The more frequent reference, however, is Toronto, where gun crime is firmly tied in the public imagination to Black communities. The goal of the new operation, as La Presse reported, is to “ensure Montreal doesn’t become another Toronto.” Given the CAQ’s refusal to recognize systemic racism in Quebec, neither the reference to Toronto nor the overwhelmingly repressive response to a racialized moral panic should surprise anyone.

Riot in the Montreal Streets to counter the Economic Austerity Measures, April 2015. Photo: Benoit Daoust

Projet Montréal, a police party

In contrast to the CAQ, Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal party presents itself as progressive and sometimes makes gestures toward a more enlightened approach to gun crime. And yet, its support for police is staggering. In its four years in power, it has resisted calls for meaningful police reform and has increased the SPVM budget every year. The most recent increase, a $14.6 million boost for 2021, went against the demands of the city’s resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, the Defund the Police Coalition, and the 73 percent of Montrealers who called for reducing SPVM funding in a 2020 pre-budgetary survey organized by the city government.

On public security issues, Projet Montréal has positioned itself to the right of social movements and even popular opinion. Support for real changes, including defunding the police, is strong in Montreal. The Defund the Police Coalition, which includes BLM Montreal and 80 other groups, was formed in June 2020 in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantal Moore in Canada. Its members helped to organize the two largest protests against police racism and violence in the city’s history last summer, have organized workshops and created popular education tools like video clips and Instagram decks, and developed an alternative city budget, which lays out how a 50 percent cut in the SPVM budget could be used to support communities and prevent harm. The coalition is one of many new groups in Canada, like Defund the HPS in Hamilton and Defund 604 in Vancouver, that have captured and catalyzed public demands for new, community based approaches to public safety.

Projet Montréal’s rejection of such demands is related to the party’s structure and core objectives. The party, formed in 2004, grew out of the city’s gentrifying neighbourhoods and continues to find its strongest support there. Residents of these neighbourhoods tend to vote left, as they tend to do everywhere in Canada, but they are also upwardly mobile and predominantly white. This constituency, as BLM Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson explains, has almost no real interaction with police and tends not, therefore, to recognize problems like police violence or prioritize actions to address them. They may still support actions like defunding the police, but Projet Montréal believes their votes can be won without such actions.

Since the early days, the party has also been devoted to keeping middle class families in the city, both for the usual reasons (their property taxes fund the city) and for environmental reasons (a denser city is correlated with lower greenhouse gas emissions). As in any city, this means attending to the feelings of insecurity that may cause mobile residents to flee for the suburbs. Aiming to provide security to middle-class families, while largely disconnected from the racialized populations that experience police violence and the movements that offer different and better ways to provide safety to everyone, Projet Montréal is left with only one option: providing steadfast and ever-increasing support to police. 

As the moral crisis around guns and gangs has carried into 2021, the party’s support for police has only grown. A series of Projet Montréal announcements this year, framed as responses to gun crime, have further increased policing resources, providing around $20 million in new money and 42 additional police officers. In a nod to community concerns, the party has also augmented the budget for community crime prevention twice—from $1 million to $2.4 million in March 2021, and then to $5M (for the next fiscal year) in September. This paltry support has been widely criticized by community organizations and progressives, but it also distinguishes the party, at least symbolically, from the more overtly repressive CAQ and Plante’s competitor for mayor in this November’s election, Denis Coderre.

A screenshot from a video of a young Black man shoved to the ground by a Montreal police officer in July of 2019. The video was filmed outside Henri-Bourassa Metro and widely shared on social media.

“Community policing” a velvet glove over an iron fist

The party’s new four-year public security plan follows the same pattern. It promises $95 million over four years to support recently introduced SPVM operations, such as the new guns and gangs squad. This money, Plante emphasizes, shows the party is committed to maintaining police funding in a potential second four-year mandate, a claim meant to combat her rival Denis Coderre’s assertion, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Projet Montréal wants to defund the police. Indeed, the $95 million is only part of the story, as the costs of paying police personnel tend to increase every year. In response to an inquiry from The Breach, a Projet Montréal official explained that future SPVM budgets will reflect “increases in expenses and inflation, so that police have the means to provide services to Montrealers.” Existing police funding, then, will not only be maintained, but also increased in a second mandate.

But what about the community component? The new security plan invests in community areas in three ways. It proposes that some police officers be required to work in the same neighbourhood for at least three years, a situation the party claims will “bring them closer to community organizations and citizens.” It also maintains funding for a recently created police squad meant to build better relations with community members, and funds an expansion of a new civilian squad tasked with responding to situations involving mental illness and homelessness. Finally, it maintains existing funding at $5 million per year for community crime prevention.

While these investments in community may suggest a more progressive approach to public security, they need to be recognized as an essential component of a broader repressive strategy. The funding for a civilian intervention team, for example, seems to pick up a major demand of the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements. Activists across North America have demanded non-police responses to a variety of situations, often drawing inspiration from the CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS, introduced in the 1960s under a different name, sends community workers to respond to 911 calls involving mental illness, homelessness, drug overdoses, and other situations requiring support. 

While activists see initiatives like CAHOOTS as a replacement for police—an example of how police funding could be reallocated—Projet Montréal has another perspective. Since funding for the civilian squad will not come from the police budget, Plante explains the new unit will free up police officers to deal with other problems like guns and gangs, problems that are imagined to be concentrated in Black communities. Rather than responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, then, the party lifts a movement demand and robs it of all anti-racist and transformative potential.

The new plan’s investments in police-community relations and community organizations, meanwhile, provide an essential companion or complement to police repression. Police forces around the world, beginning in the 1960s, have come to recognize the importance of winning community support for their operations, especially in times of organized resistance to police racism and violence. As a seminal book on policing in 1977 explains, efforts to strengthen relationships with communities have become the “velvet glove” that encloses and makes effective the “iron fist” of continued police repression. More recently, Stuart Schrader has traced the military origins of this essentially “counter-insurgency” strategy. For the police, as for the military, the objective of community engagement is to divide the population, to build relationships with one segment of the population to wage a better war on another segment.

In Montreal, community buy-in has been central to the most repressive and racist police operations since at least 1989, when the first street gang squad was launched. An internal police report from that year shows that, prior to launching a major offensive against Haitian gangs in the northeast of the city, police “community relations” experts met with Haitian community leaders to explain the operation and win their support. While moves like this have long been debated in the Haitian community, I would emphasize the responsibility of the police in this context. As Schader would suggest, the Montreal police are mobilizing public money to create divisions in communities, to bring certain segments of the community onto their side to wage an otherwise indefensible assault on other segments.

When viewed from this perspective, last week’s announcements by the CAG and Projet Montréal can be recognized as complementary rather than contrasting. Both announcements overwhelmingly emphasize police repression, with $185 million in new police funding from the two levels of government. In Montreal, this means a police budget of $703 million in 2022, plus increases each year as personnel and other costs rise. Next to this, the annual funding for community organizations ($5 million) and a civilian intervention team ($3.5 million) might seem an afterthought. But they are more than that. These investments also provide the “velvet glove” that effective counterinsurgency policing requires. 

A progressive approach to public security would move in an entirely different direction. To begin with, it would question the current moral panic around gangs and guns, a panic that is vastly out of proportion to the actual levels of gun crime in the city and is mobilized increasingly, especially by the police and the CAQ, to discredit any and all demands for police reform or defunding. It would see the wisdom in the demand from Black Lives Matter and the defund the police movement to invest in communities, not as a companion to police but as a genuine alternative. Providing public safety, in this view, means addressing the social causes of harm, distinguishing between actual harm and crimes that are not harmful, and seeking to make everyone safer—not just those who find comfort in police repression.

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