A Recent History of Racial Profiling and Policing

Check out this short summary to better understand the issue of racial profiling in Canada and its recent history.

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The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines racial profiling to include “any action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection, that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin, or a combination of these, rather than a reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment.” Black communities in major Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal have complained for decades that they are frequently stopped, questioned, and searched by police. The term “driving while black” is sometimes used to describe and decry this prejudicial treatment, but the problem is not confined to traffic stops. Rather, it extends across the full spectrum of activity in public—walking or jogging in a park, strolling through an affluent neighbourhood, jaywalking across the street, or waiting for a friend outside a transit station may be perceived as disproportionately suspicious depending on the skin colour of the person engaged in the activity.

A Brief History of Racial Bias and Policing over the Past 40 Years

Racism experienced by racialized people in Ontario’s criminal justice system is pervasive, and extends from systemic issues embedded in court processes and prison practices to routine aspects of policing outside of legal institutions, such as police stops and arrests. Police misconduct may be viewed as part of a larger picture of systemic mistreatment of racial groups in the justice system. Allegations that the Canadian criminal justice system is racially biased, made at various junctures by different groups over the past several decades, were continually dismissed by government officials as groundless opinions of organizations and advocates. In general, government officials maintained that the vast majority of racialized citizens had complete confidence in the police and the courts. By the early 1990s, public complaints, legal actions, empirical research, and a number of high-profile incidents would bring several police practices to the forefront of the debates on racial bias in policing in Canada. (see Scot Wortley & Andrea McCalla, “Racial Discrimination in the Ontario Justice System)

Social Science Evidence:

The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System

In response to the increasing dissatisfaction expressed by public figures in racialized communities, in 1992 the provincial government established a Commission to examine and report on allegations of differential treatment in the Ontario criminal justice system. The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System issued its 445-page report, following a survey of over 1,200 Toronto adults (18 years of age or older) who identified as Black, Chinese, or White.  The Report confirmed that police abuse of power was embedded in routine practices. The final report was released in 1995.

The creation of the Commission grew out of the mobilization of members of Toronto Black communities in response to police shootings over the previous fifteen years. Between 1978 and 1992, Ontario police officers had shot 1 Black woman and at least 13 Black men, 8 of who were killed. 11 of the 14 shootings occurred in Toronto. Members of the Black communities reacted to these shootings by demanding change in the delivery of police services in the city. Activists argued that racism in policing was a contributing factor in the shootings. Community groups that had organized around demands for police accountability also began to complain about the increased police presence in Black communities (see Phillip C Stenning, “Policing the Cultural Kaleidoscope: Canadian Experience”). Stories began to circulate about the mistreatment faced by many racialized people in other parts of the criminal justice system such as the courts and correctional facilities.  By the 1990s, racial tension in Toronto, as well as Ottawa, mounted as private citizens, organizations and advocates began to protest against what they called an abuse of police power. The frustration of members of the Black community was expressed through civil disturbances in downtown Toronto in 1992, an uproar which followed an all-white jury’s acquittal of two white police officers charged in the shooting death of Michael Wade Lawson, the fatal police shooting of Raymond Lawrence, and the acquittal of four white police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King in the United States. 

Steven Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario

Then Premier, Bob Rae, appointed a special advisor on race relations, Stephen Lewis, to develop a report to resolve problems behind the public’s demand for change. Lewis consulted with Black and other racialized communities throughout Ontario. The report identified that Black people were especially vulnerable to systemic racism.

Additional Studies

Throughout the years, research continued to show that perceptions of racial discrimination were still widespread. For example, a 1995 survey of 3,400 Toronto high school students showed that over half of the Black respondents (52%) felt that the police treated members of their racial group worse than the members of other racial groups (see Scott Wortley & Julian Tanner, “Data, Denials and Confusion: The Racial Profiling Debate in Toronto”). In another report in 2000 found that Black Canadians, particularly young males reported being exposed to excessive policing. This study by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty conducted 167 interviews. Two –thirds of those surveyed reported being assaulted or threatened by the police. Other tactics reported included harassment (74%), threatening arrest (59%), searches without good cause (54%) (see OCAP).

Judicial Recognition

Widespread racism in the administration of justice and its adverse impact on racialized groups has also been judicially noted. In R.v. Parks, Justice Doherty concluded that, “[o]ur institutions, reflect and perpetuate negative stereotypes. These elements combine to infect our society, as a whole, with the evil of racism.” The Court in R. v. Brown and Peart v. Peel Regional Police Service Board, concluded that racism operates in the criminal justice system and found that racial profiling is criminal profiling based on race.

Racial Profiling

By 2002, the Toronto Star began publication of a series of articles on the topic of race and crime. In “Singled Out”, the Star’s analysis of arrest data from the Toronto Police Services revealed that Black Canadians were highly over-represented in certain offence categories, including drug possession and trafficking. The data also showed that in stops, searches, arrests and detentions from 1996 to 2002, the Toronto Police Service treated people of African descent differently from other racialized groups. Examining data after the release of the report from the Commission on Systemic Racism, the Star maintained that this pattern of over-representation was consistent with the idea that Toronto police engaged in racial profiling and that racialized offenders were treated more harshly after arrest than their White counterparts. In response, then Toronto Police Chief, Julian Fantino declared, “there is no racism. We don’t look at, nor do we consider race or ethnicity, or any of that, as factors of how we dispose of cases, or individuals, or how we treat individuals” (from Singled Out).

In 2003, the Kingston Police began researching the issue of racial profiling. For one year, police officers would be required to fill out a form whenever they made a traffic or pedestrian stop. In 2005, the Kingston police released the results of its data collection. The conclusion was that Blacks were over-represented in police stops when compared to Whites (see Scot Wortley & Lysandra Marshall, “Bias Free Policing: the Kingston Data Collection Project”).  The data revealed that Black residents were 4 times more likely to be pulled over by the police. That same year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission announced a public inquiry on racial profiling. The Commission’s report, Paying the Price, documented many stories from individuals alleging that they had been victimized and targeted by the practice racial profiling in a variety of sectors.

In 2010, after examining 1.7 million contact cards filled out by Toronto police officers between 2003 and 2008, the Toronto Star updated their 2002 study and concluded that racialized youths were 3 times more likely to be stopped than White youths (see John Sewell, “Racial Profiling still has no place here”). Carding is the process of filling out a ‘208’ card with information on any individual stopped. 208 cards are used by police as part of a strategy, called the Toronto Anti Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), to record information about persons that police consider to be of interest. These stops occur in the context of both pedestrian stops and traffic stops. The Star analysis of those cards revealed a disparity in who is carded, which many view as a form of bias. The Star reported that 41 percent of all contact cards filled out by TAVIS involved Black people.  Who gets stopped, and who gets written up is a matter of police discretion. The Police position on the new carding policy has been that it is a valuable investigating tool, and makes important links between places and people. To many residents, carding is a form of racial profiling whereby certain members of a community are targeted for more police scrutiny than others. Recently a class action lawsuit has been filed against the Toronto Police Service contending that the current carding policy violates section 8 and 9 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Most recently in 2013, the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection was created as a 2 year plan to trace the race of every driver pulled over for a traffic stop by the Ottawa Police Service (see online). Also in 2013, a Canadian activists’ organization the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) announced it was suing the Toronto Police. The lawsuit attempted to gain recognition of years of racial profiling, carding, deportation and unequal treatment in prisons. Alleging violations under the Charter and the Human Rights Code, BADC filed their class action complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario seeking $100 million in damages.

In 2014, the Toronto Police Services Board drafted a new policy in an effort to monitor and oversee reforms to the current approach to Community Contacts. The Policy referred to disengagement, rights knowledge, and compliance with the Human Rights Code and the Charter. Despite protests from a range of groups and citizens, who called for carding to stop, the Community engagement policy was approved in April 2015.

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