Parent Says Police Overstepped Boundaries

Montreal Police Filmed in Incident Involving Father and Child with Autism

Charlotte’s father, Sam Kühn, said he was stopped by police on Jan. 19. Photo Vince Morello

Two weeks ago, 5-year-old Charlotte went to the dentist.

Her mouth was frozen after the morning appointment, meaning she couldn’t eat food for about an hour or so.

As she walked through the Atwater mall on the journey back home, Sam Kühn—her father—said she got excited after she saw restaurants like Tim Hortons and McDonald’s.

Charlotte has autism. Her inability to eat right away led her to have a public “meltdown,” Kühn said. He knew his daughter needed time and space to calm down, so he carried her to a nearby corner right outside the mall’s metro entrance.      

Immediately, two police officers approached him concerned about what was happening, according to Kühn.

“I suppose I can look intimidating to a certain extent,” he said. “If you see a man with a child going off to a corner, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to approach them and say, ‘what’s happening here.’”

But after explaining the situation and asking police to give Charlotte space, Kühn said the officers ignored him and tried to touch and talk to her. She was in a fetal position and unable to communicate because she is nonverbal, her father explained.

Still, according to his account, the police officers persisted and didn’t allow the father and daughter to leave, even though Kühn offered to let them follow from afar as he and his daughter went back home to nearby St. Henri.

This standoff—as Kühn described it—lasted for approximately 20 minutes. A crowd began to form, he said. He recalled at least four people intervening on his behalf, including two students who sympathized with his daughter’s fear of the police and tried explaining the situation to the officers.

Charlotte’s fear stems from her family’s regular attendance at demonstrations and protests in Montreal, Kühn explained. They were at the May Day protest last year, he said, which became infamous for its subsequent images of a children and bystanders having milk poured into their eyes to remedy the effects of tear gas.

The officers, he continued, presented him with two options: produce identification or be taken to the station. He had Charlotte’s health card and dental appointment slip but no I.D. of his own. Kühn said he doesn’t normally carry around identification because “there is no need,” and the family instead leaves everything stored safely back home.    

A video, shot with his phone, shows the last five minutes of the standoff. It begins with a self-described “agitated” Kühn asking to be left alone, and finally ends with one officer threatening to file a report against him for “his attitude.”  

In the video clip, Kühn’s neighbour, Rebecca Bain, walks into view and begins talking to the police in French. Bain, who lives on the same street as Kühn, said she became worried when she saw the crowd and heard shouting.

“At first I didn’t realize it was Sam,” she remembered. “Then I saw Charlotte.”

She told the police she knew the pair, but they continued to act “aggressively,” she recalled. “The cops started justifying themselves as if they needed to,” she said. “I felt they knew they were in over their heads.”

The Service de police de la Ville de Montreal doesn’t release information about whether a report was filed or if there is an ongoing investigation against an individual, according to Sgt. Laurent Gingras, supervisor of SPVM media relations. Officers are trained to do information gathering, he continued, but added that the powers of officers are limited if there is no criminal activity.

Gingras couldn’t comment further on specifics, and said anyone can file a complaint against an SPVM officer.

By the end of the encounter, Kühn was distraught, but he said the support and reaction from people at the mall and those who saw his post online has been “incredible.” A Facebook post he wrote describing what happened has been shared 204 times and received 162 likes. He credited the connections he made at protests—like the one he made with Bain—for avoiding a trip to the police station that day.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened if it wasn’t for her,” he said.