African-American man alleges racial profiling by police in West Island

Credit: PIERRE OBENDRAUF / MONTREAL GAZETTE

 

What started out as dinner with a friend at a Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue establishment ended with Jason Withrow being stopped by police shortly after getting into his car, handcuffed, charged with refusing a breathalyzer test and left stranded in freezing temperatures after his car was impounded.

Withrow, who is African-American, does not drink alcohol. Originally from North Carolina, he came to Montreal four years ago from New York and speaks only limited French. His case was highlighted on Sunday at a news conference by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR). Executive director Fo Niemi said the centre receives a call about racial profiling once a month.

Withrow and his mother, Teresia Withrow, speaking from her home in Charlotte, N.C., are appealing to Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and to Michelle Obama, who is set to speak in Montreal on Monday, to denounce racial profiling and dangers faced by black men in encounters with police.

Withrow, 31, works as a part-time supervisor for UPS; he has permanent resident status and said he had been hoping to become a Canadian citizen. Following his ordeal, he said he doesn’t “feel optimistic about the future here.”

He left an establishment on Ste-Anne St. shortly before 2 a.m. on Jan. 26. He drove off in his grey 2011 Audi and was stopped soon after. The officer who approached the car spoke French. Withrow said he responded, in French, that his French is not good. Continuing to speak French, the officer asked for ID. Withrow asked that an officer who speaks English be sent.

He was asked, in English, whether he had used drugs or alcohol. He said he had not. The officer said he smelled alcohol in the vehicle; Withrow asked for a superior. Two female officers arrived but did not speak to him. The first officer then read from a yellow piece of paper “in broken English and broken French” about blowing into a “machine,” but Withrow said it was never communicated clearly that police wanted him to take a breathalyzer test. He said he felt vulnerable and confused.

As communication problems continued, Withrow was handcuffed. A superior officer turned up and asked him to let police search his car and to “blow in the machine.” Again he hesitated, explaining he did not drink. He was charged with refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test, a criminal offence. His licence was suspended for 90 days and his car towed and impounded for 30 days. He is expected to turn up later this month for fingerprinting and to be photographed. It will cost close to $1,000 to retrieve his car. His initial application to have his licence restored was rejected by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec.

The officers called him a taxi to get home to Lachine; as he was approaching the cab, he said, he heard them chuckling among themselves. Withrow didn’t have money for a taxi and his cellphone was out of power, so he couldn’t call friends. He caught a ride with a driver who dropped him at Trudeau airport and he walked the rest of the way home, arriving at 4:30 a.m. Traumatized, he didn’t go to work for two days.

Niemi said CRARR would help Withrow try to get back his licence and help him prepare a criminal defence — and perhaps file complaints on his behalf with Quebec’s Human Rights Commission and the police ethics commission. He said police officers assigned to the West Island should be expected to make themselves understood in English.

Beyond that, Niemi said, the city must take concrete action against racial profiling. The previous plan of action expired in 2014. Consultations on racial profiling were held last fall; Niemi said no commitment by the city to act has been evident since then. “It gives the city a bad reputation.”

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