Helen Dion is retiring after having spent the last 12 years at the head of the Police Department of the City of Repentigny.
When she was sworn in as a police officer in Saint-Hyacinthe, in 1990, Helen Dion had to wear the used uniform of a male colleague, because ;no female uniform was available.
When the director made me do my swearing, he saw that I was floating in my clothes. Quickly, he sent me to a store to be made to measure, recalls Helen Dion, who last Friday ended 32 years of police career, including the last 12 at the head of the police. Repentigny police.
Change in the police, so she was part of it from the start.
Refusal of male colleagues to be paired with her on patrol, disbelieving citizens when she showed up to answer a call, the new retiree had to cash in a ton of misconceptions and unconscious biases.
That's still the debate today, she argues. We are often afraid of change, of differences, of the other.
Helen Dion claims to have been part of change in this profession from its beginnings.
In recent years, the Repentigny police have made headlines for cases of racial profiling denounced by racialized citizens.
Among other things, the police organization she led until recently was strongly criticized by the Black Citizens Group of Repentigny after 8 young blacks received tickets totaling $11,500 in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19.
In 2018, a $200,000 lawsuit was also filed against Repentigny police to denounce racial profiling.
In the wake of the complaints, Helen Dion turned in November 2020 to the UENA Agency, which specializes in corporate governance for inclusion social, in order to transform the practices of its police organization.
We made a diagnosis of our ways of doing things, how to improve. And we worked cross-functionally across the whole organization. We made sure to recognize the unconscious biases and to understand them in our relations with the population, she mentions.
“This are the citizens who pay for the services they are given. They have the right to express their dissatisfaction. They told us. I took that literally.
—Helen Dion, outgoing Repentigny Police Director
Have there been any arrests? Certainly, that's our job. It's our job to do that, says Ms. Dion, who has long been assigned to criminal investigations at the Quebec City police, without hesitation. I was trained at the time to do this, criminal profiling. By the way, we work with that: the profile. What kind of person can commit this or that crime.
“Racial profiling and criminal profiling are very close. The policeman must be aware of not falling into the other. He must be aware of certain unconscious biases in his interventions.
— Helen Dion, outgoing Repentigny Police Director
Helen Dion believes that change is part of being a police officer. Manners change. The demands on the police too.
At the time, I'm going to talk to you in the 1990s, it was the Hells Angels who were doing big crime. I can tell you that everyone who rode a Harley Davidson, with tattoos and long hair, had a good chance of being stopped by the police to get checked, she says.
Crime today has changed. She transforms. The police have adapted their methods. They make arrests based on the criminality that has been demonstrated to us.
Racial profiling in Repentigny is a fact, according to researchers from UQAM and UdeM.
< p class="e-p">According to the UENA Agency, which specializes in corporate governance in the area of social inclusion, the Repentigny police have made giant strides in two years.
To date, the agency, which works with government departments, agencies and corporations, says Director Helen Dion is the only one to have turned to an independent firm to transform a police organization. /p>
According to the agency, this is an unprecedented approach in Quebec.
The organizational changes were able to materialize, because there was a will from the leadership and the police base, says Shahad Salman, senior adviser at UENA.
“Just providing training is not enough to break unconscious biases. It's long term. And it's the commitment we made with the Repentigny police that will be made over several years to obtain results that will last.
—Shahad Salman, Senior Advisor at UENA Agency
Beyond changing the approach towards cultural communities, UENA also participated in the plan to electrify the fleet of patrol cars, on the horizon of 2030, and in the establishment of x27;an intervention plan for people with mental health problems.
We would have really liked to continue with Ms. Dion. But with the changes that are underway, we knew that it would not be possible to make them happen with him, because they will take more than five years to put in place. On an individual level, our experience with her was very pleasant and positive, says Ms. Salman.
Helen Dion does not hesitate to make a strong plea in favor of the work of its police officers and deplores the way they are sometimes treated. From his point of view, the intimidation that targets the police has become a reality.
I have had this experience myself. I myself intercepted someone on my way out of a town council that hadn't made any mandatory stops on Iberville. He received me with his phone and his camera well aligned in the face, she says. My police officers experience this on a daily basis. Me, I experienced it once. It is clear that he did not contest his ticket.
At a time when police forces are experiencing a shortage of new personnel to fill retirements, the outgoing director is concerned about the difficulty there is in attracting young people into the profession.
< p class="e-p">I hope that we will end up attracting young people from the next generations from cultural communities to adopt the police profile. In Repentigny, that represents 20% of the population. If I could interest a percentage of these young people in the trade, I would be very happy, says Ms. Dion.
The black population of Repentigny often complains about its police department. The community of Haitian origin represents 8,000 of the city's 84,000 citizens.
As for racial profiling, she says she leaves office with peace of mind having made decisions to that its organization should question itself and improve.
It also invites the population to do the same introspection on the place to be given to young police officers who will fill retirements and end up under public criticism.
Today, the public expects public institutions to be perfect. But they never will be, because they are made up of human beings, she concludes.