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How racial bias can affect 911 calls and what dispatchers in Montreal are learning to stop it

A 911 operator answers a call from a woman complaining about a “Muslim man” parked on a quiet street. The man strikes the caller as suspicious.

The operator weighs her options: does she send the police? The man is allowed to be there and, by the caller’s own admission, he is doing nothing illegal. A police response in this case, and in others like it, could lead to accusations that officers racially profiled the man — but here, the profiling didn’t originate with the officers. 

“Some calls are profiled when they come in,” Rose-Andrée Hubbard, the SPVM’s equity, diversity and inclusion advisor, said in a recent interview.

This isn’t a theoretical problem. That call was real and last week, Montreal’s 911 operators listened to it and others, as part of new training intended to help them screen for bias in calls. 

“Everything we are putting in place,” Hubbard said, “is to permit our police to intervene based on the actions of a person, not their identity.”

how racial bias can affect 911 calls and what dispatchers in montreal are learning to stop it
New training by the SPVM asks dispatchers to screen out biased language before transferring calls on to police. (Steve Silcox/CBC News Graphics)

The training provided to 911 operators, which is among the first of its kind in North America, is part of an internal push for change inside the Montreal police. It prompted the operators to question how they can prevent biases or racist stereotypes from filtering through a 911 call into the police response. 

It comes as the SPVM grapples with racial profiling and welcomes a new chief, Fady Dagher, lauded by the mayor’s office as the leader of a “new police culture.”

Filtering out loaded terminology

Last week, CBC Montreal attended one of the training sessions alongside a group of SPVM 911 operators, some of whom had just finished a night shift. 

One training situation the group grappled with: what to do if someone calls about a group of young Black men in a park and says the men are affiliated with street gangs. 

Some dispatchers said they thought the information might be pertinent to pass on to the police. They expressed a philosophy that 911 operators should give police every piece of information the caller delivers, which could help protect officers if they are heading into a dangerous situation.

Sébastien Molaire, who used to work as a patrol officer in the Parc-Extension neighbourhood and now coaches other officers on how to properly conduct police stops, told the dispatchers that he sympathized with their desire to protect officers, but he suggested a different approach.

The use of the term street gangs, for example, he said, should be questioned. The caller may have no evidence or basis for assuming the men are part of a gang. It may be a biased assumption — and if transferred unquestioningly onto police, it may prompt a charged response.

“The important thing,” he said, “is that the dispatch is able to give us observable facts so that we can work in an objective way.”

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Rose-Andrée Hubbard, the SPVM’s equity, diversity and inclusion advisor, said she practically jumped for joy when she learned there was a push among 911 dispatchers to be trained on how to filter bias and racial discrimination out of calls. (SPVM handout)

Internal push for change

The training stems from an internal SPVM effort to fight against racial profiling.

In 2019, when a group of researchers revealed that Montreal police were disproportionately stopping Black and Indigenous Montrealers, Dammya Loiseau, a supervisor at the SPVM’s 911 call centre, said she became motivated to push for change. 

She and a group of like-minded 911 operators developed the training to try to ensure they don’t “transfer the bias that some citizens have” onto the information cards they fill out during each call. 

But she and the SPVM’s recently formed equity, diversity and inclusion department are learning how difficult it is to change habits that have been in place for decades. 

“Making people change the way they’ve been working, the way they’ve been doing things is something that is difficult,” Loiseau said. “[Change] is scary.”

The goal of the training, she said, was to start a discussion, to try and make the operators aware that some language — even if it comes from the caller and seems relevant — can be harmful and lead to charged police interactions.

She hoped the operators would leave with tools they could use when they identify biased language in calls to stop it from leaking into the police response. 

“We want to show them there are several other ways of doing it, several other words that can be used and we suggest to use those other words,” she said.

But the training group also discussed broader issues: the meaning of discrimination, what it means to be racialized, and the effect of discrimination —  which prompted spirited discussions from some participants.

Hubbard, the equity diversity and inclusion advisor, said those conversations can be challenging, but she hoped the training provided a safe space for SPVM employees to ask questions.

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Myrna Lashley said a new training for 911 operators was a sign of a push for culture change inside the SPVM, but she stressed that the training would have to be followed-up on if it were to be effective. (Naskademini)

“We can’t continue to censor something so serious,” she said. “We need to talk about these things.”

More than just call-takers

Jessica Gillooly, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University in Boston whose research centres on the role of 911 in the criminal justice system, said the SPVM training is among the first of its kind. 

Recent high-profile cases of racist abuses of the 911 system — the case of a woman calling about a Black man birdwatching in Central Park, as one example — have drawn greater attention to the role dispatchers play in the justice system. Gillooly said she felt frustrated when, as a 911 dispatcher in Michigan, she knew she was sending police to respond to similar calls. 

Since then, her research and advocacy have promoted a greater recognition of 911 dispatchers’ roles and responsibilities in the justice system.

“There has, for a long time, historically sort of been a view that call-takers pass on raw information from caller to police officer and they’re just sort of passing messages along,” she said. 

“But I think call-takers actually do have some authority and they do make decisions on the fly and they have some discretion, so recognizing that and then empowering them to use that authority … is important.”

Myrna Lashley, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University who sat on the SPVM’s expert committee on racial profiling, said training 911 operators to filter out bias is long overdue. 

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Bochra Manai is Montreal’s commissioner for the fight against racism and systemic discrimination. She said the training was just a first step in what is a relatively new push from the SPVM to change its culture. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

For Lashley, the SPVM’s efforts to ensure only factual information finds its way into the police computers is “a step in the right direction,” but the organization will have to follow up to make sure the training sticks. 

“You’re going to get pushback,” she said. “So you have to do followup training. You need buy in.”

Bochra Manai, Montreal’s commissioner for the fight against racism and systemic discrimination and one of the facilitators at the training, said the course is just a first step in what is a relatively new push from the SPVM to change its culture. 

“It’s a catalyst,” she said, “but afterwards it will be up to everyone to continue this work.”

Over four hours at the training, Hubbard, Loiseau and Manai led the 911 operators through conversations about race and bias. Loiseau said it’s a platform they wouldn’t have had five years ago.

“Despite everything, there is organizational desire,” Hubbard said. “There is a space and we are free to talk about these subjects. We can talk about it and discuss it. We don’t need to always agree, but we need the space to discuss.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Five fists raised with different skin colours for the Being Black in Canada logo.

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