Repentigny youth believe racial profiling led to heavy COVID-19 fines

Repentigny youth believe racial profiling led to heavy COVID-19 fines

The Repentigny police department denied any form of racial discrimination, saying repeated warnings, not profiling, led to the fines.

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In late May, nine young Black men went to play basketball at a park in Repentigny, believing the provincial government’s easing of restrictions on outdoor gatherings allowed them to finally return to the court.

But after four police cruisers pulled up to the park, the men — aged 16 to 21 — were left with a total of nearly $12,000 in tickets for not respecting the COVID-19 measures in effect.

A little later that same afternoon, a group of young white basketball players was also approached by police at the park. They received warnings instead of tickets.

Accompanied by their parents and a civil rights group, those involved held a news conference Sunday to denounce what they believe is unequal treatment and the latest example of the local police force’s difficult relationship with Black residents.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the discrimination,” said 20-year-old Nathan Dery, who received a $1,546 ticket that day. “We were treated differently. If you’re enforcing a rule, enforce it the same way for everyone.”

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Repentigny, about 40 kilometres north of Montreal, has made headlines in recent years after Black residents have reported several instances of alleged racial profiling by the town’s police.

The police department has since publicly pledged to do better. But the recent incident at the basketball court, said Alain Babineau of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), shows there is still much work to be done.

Given the circumstances, Babineau said, it would have been reasonable for the officers to simply give the youths a warning, but they instead went with a “punitive approach” contrary to the bridge-building efforts the force has agreed are needed.

“It increases the sentiment of us versus them. They feel they’re being targeted, that they’re not wanted,” he said. “It’s something that will stay with them for a long time.”

Babineau said each family may decide to challenge the ticket individually. Police ethics or human rights complaints also haven’t been ruled out, he added.

In all, seven of the players who were over 18 received $1,546 tickets. Two minors received $500 tickets.

Rose Alcide’s 16-year-old son was among those ticketed.

Alcide had gone by the park to pick up her daughter shortly before police were called. As a parent, she said, she made sure to look around and ensure everyone was respecting the distancing measures in effect.

She feels the young men were racially profiled and worries about the long-term effects that might have on her son.

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“It’s frustrating,” Alcide said. “We’re in 2020. I grew up here and never would have thought that my children would live through worse incidents than I did in terms of racism.”

Police deny discrimination, say those involved had been warned before

In an interview Sunday, Lison Ostiguy, in charge of the police force division that’s working on community relations, challenged the version of events put forward at the news conference.

Ostiguy could not say for sure why the white youths were not ticketed that afternoon, but said the young Black men were fined because some of them had been warned before.

Those who spoke out on Sunday adamantly denied ever receiving warnings, saying it was the first time they had gone to the court since the coronavirus lockdown began.

But Ostiguy said the department’s records show at least four of those who were ticketed had been warned about playing basketball in the park on April 26 and again two days later.

The two police officers who issued them warnings in April were the same who ticketed them on May 22.

That day, she said, police received a call about 20 people playing basketball at the court. When the officers arrived, half ran away. Seven who stayed were ticketed and two others who left received fines by mail since the department already had their information.

One of the men who spoke to reporters Sunday, Kenley Louis, 20, said he tried to show the officers a newspaper article on his phone: May 22 was the first day a new government decree was in effect allowing gatherings of up to 10 people.

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Louis said the group genuinely believed that allowed them to play basketball.

“We tried to explain ourselves, but they wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “We wouldn’t have risked $1,500 just to play basketball.”

Ostiguy agreed the new decree came into effect that day, but said the government had made it clear team sports still weren’t allowed.

She denied any form of racial discrimination by the officers involved in the incident. She said the same two officers ticketed three young white men playing basketball at a different park earlier that day.

In all of May, she added, the department issued 42 tickets for COVID-19 measures — 33 for white residents and nine for Black residents.

“With the information I have,” she said, “I don’t think there was unequal treatment.”

CRARR said Sunday it wants the young men involved to be able to sit down with the police chief “to re-establish their trust” in the police.

Ostiguy said the police force welcomes the idea.

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