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Killing of Black man by Montreal police raises questions: anti-racism activist

MONTREAL — The recent killing of a Black Montrealer who authorities said was "in crisis" raises questions about how police approach racialized people and those with mental health problems, according to the head of an anti-racism group.

MONTREAL — The recent killing of a Black Montrealer who authorities said was "in crisis" raises questions about how police approach racialized people and those with mental health problems, according to the head of an anti-racism group.

But Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said he's waiting for witnesses and family members to come forward before taking a stand on the shooting.

Montreal police shot Sheffield Matthews, 41, Thursday morning. Quebec's police watchdog, the Bureau des enquetes independantes, is investigating along with the coroner's office.

The watchdog agency said in a statement that Matthews allegedly advanced toward police holding a knife before he was shot. The statement also described Matthews as being "in crisis."

Niemi said that statement -- issued before agency investigators arrived on the scene -- also raises concerns.

"We can't rely 100 per cent on the official version, whether it comes from the police of whether it comes from the (watchdog)," Niemi said. The agency, he said, "tends to rely on police information."

Niemi said he believes the watchdog needs to build a relationship with members of communities that are affected by "police violence and lethal force."

Sue Montgomery, the mayor of the west-end borough where the shooting took place, described Matthew's death as a "senseless killing" on social media. 

"We need police trained to help people in crisis, not kill them," said the mayor of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace.

The borough has a "sad and tragic history of police violence against black men," Montgomery wrote, adding that the existence of "systemic racism" in the city's police force is "undeniable."

Yves Francoeur, the head of the union that represents Montreal police officers, condemned Montgomery's comments in a statement, calling them "totally irresponsible."

Niemi said he thinks Montgomery's comments may have been premature. 

"I think it would be wiser to wait a little bit for more information to come out and, more importantly, to hear from the family members before taking a stand," he said. 

Rachel Bromberg, co-founder of the Toronto-based Reach Out Response Network, which is working with the City of Toronto to create a framework for a non-police, mental health emergency response service, said police aren't trained to respond to mental health crises.

"Police officers are trained to respond to crime, they're not health workers, they're not mental health experts," she said, adding that the tactics police use to respond to violent crime are often the opposite of what's need to respond to someone in crisis.

Bromberg said that a non-police mental health emergency service -- dispatched by 911 -- has been operating in Eugene, Ore., since 1989. That service has never had a staff member be seriously injured or killed on the job. Other cities in the United States have created similar programs.

While some Canadian cities have emergency mental health organizations, none of them are dispatched through 911. 

Bromberg said that could soon change with a number of cities, including Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, considering establishing similar services. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press




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