Deputation to the Ottawa Police Services Board on the
Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project
Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the OPS’s Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project. My deputation will be available online this afternoon, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s full report with our analysis of the findings will be available on our website tomorrow. This project was based on a 2012 settlement between the Ottawa Police Services Board and the Commission, after Chad Aiken, a young Black man, filed a human rights complaint alleging racial profiling.
As part of the settlement, the OPS agreed that its officers would collect race-based data on traffic stops for two years beginning in 2013. The OPS fully complied with the settlement and even went beyond what was required in its data collection efforts, resulting in a comprehensive police data collection initiative.
But collecting data is just one part of the story– and it is secondary to the devastating personal experiences of people like Chad Aiken whose rights are often ignored, and who face great personal risk, all because of the colour of their skin or their religion.
Racial profiling can cause trauma and lasting damage…
- There is no pleasure in simple tasks like driving to the corner store or walking down the street when you know there is a good chance that you will be pulled over or stopped, even if you have done nothing wrong.
- There is a pervasive fear and anxiety that takes hold when police look at you with suspicion – again even if you have done nothing wrong.
- And you are hesitant to challenge the way you are being treated, or even to come forward to report crimes, because police hold the power in your interaction.
All too often when people like Mr. Aiken come forward to speak about racial discrimination, they are dismissed as being overly sensitive or not having enough proof that their experience is systemic – the “a few bad apples” defence. This quick dismissal or denial of the lived experience of racialized and Indigenous people has resulted in a renewed focus on human rights data collection as the means to prove that “racism is real.”
That is why it is so disappointing to the Commission and racialized communities, when institutions continue to deny the existence of systemic racism in the face of clear quantitative data – data that supports the qualitative data like Mr. Aiken’s personal experience.
Results suggest racial profiling
And that’s why we are disappointed by recent comments that the OPS data does not “prove” racial profiling. Especially when considered together with the personal accounts that led to the data being collected in the first place, the findings are alarming, are entirely consistent with racial profiling, and cannot and should not be easily explained away.
The researchers found that Black and Middle Eastern people experienced disproportionately high incidences of traffic stops, just as Mr. Aiken alleged in his human rights application. Black drivers were stopped 2.3 times more than you would expect based on their driving population, and Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 3.3 times more often. In fact, even “Middle Eastern” female drivers were stopped almost three times more than their representation in the driving population. This was the highest disproportion of any of the women included in the review.
Young male Black drivers aged 16-24, were stopped 8.3 times more than would be expected based on their driving population. And young male Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 12 times more. Another concern is the result of the traffic stops of Black, Indigenous, Middle Eastern and other racialized drivers.
The researchers concluded that “there was a greater propensity that these four racialized minority groups were traffic-stopped for nothing serious enough to be warned or charged, when compared with the White group.”
We see this as another indicator that systemic racial profiling may be at play.
Does the data “prove” racial profiling?
The OPS and others have asserted that the researchers’ findings do not “prove” racial profiling. However, the research was not designed to prove causation, nor could quantitative research on its own generally prove that systemic racism is the cause of disparities. But the significant degree of disproportions uncovered by the data – especially when combined with the accounts of Mr. Aiken and many other racialized people – cannot be explained away by non-discriminatory factors alone.
The results from the OPS data collection project must be interpreted in the context of the historical relationship between police and racialized and Indigenous communities in Ottawa and in Canada more generally. In many recent cases, courts and tribunals have found racial profiling to be behind seemingly neutral police interactions with racialized and Indigenous peoples. They have accepted that racial profiling can rarely be identified by direct evidence, and will more often be established by circumstantial evidence and inference.
The high disproportionalities found in this report are just the kind of strong circumstantial evidence decision-makers are talking about when looking at racial profiling.
What does “consistent with systemic racial profiling”mean?
In some cases, the racial disproportionality in traffic stops could be explained by individual officer bias, whether implicit or explicit. Implicit officer bias stems from unconscious stereotypes, and explicit bias arises from conscious stereotypes. Courts and tribunals have recognized that racial stereotyping will usually be the result of subtle unconscious beliefs, biases and prejudices.
Less well understood is that racial profiling often arises from systemic or institutionalized discrimination. The results are more likely explained by systemic racial profiling,
When the Commission talks about systemic racial profiling, we are talking about policies and practices, and organizational culture that are part of the social or administrative structure of an organization. These may appear neutral, but may result in situations where racialized or Indigenous peoples tend to be singled out for greater scrutiny.
These policies or practices may be the product of unconscious racial biases. While these practices may not have been designed to specifically target particular racialized groups, the data shows that this was the outcome. Examples where bias could be at play include routine or “normal” policing practices, such as officer deployment, intelligence gathering activities, and stopping people who are perceived to be “out of place” in a neighbourhood.
For example, suggestions that the deployment of more officers is needed in “high-crime” areas or that residents in priority neighbourhoods want police to be active and visible cannot justify stop practices that have a disparate impact on racialized people. In short, when communities ask you to be present in their neighbourhoods, this cannot result in over-broad policing of innocent people, and it cannot lead to fishing expeditions.
In fact, a police deployment strategy that leads to greater traffic stops for racialized people in “high crime” areas is likely itself be a form of systemic racial profiling. Greater numbers of traffic patrols in racialized neighbourhoods means that racialized people are more likely to be targeted for minor offences, such as traffic offences, compared to White people in other neighbourhoods who may be committing the same offences.
These actions, especially when repeated regularly, can have a disturbing impact on the dignity of racialized people – as we saw with Mr. Aiken’s experience. We simply cannot cause some of the most marginalized people in our society to live in fear and hopelessness.
Misconceptions about racial profiling, systemic racism
Our opinion about the data is based on our deep experience working on the issue of racial profiling in policing for more than decade. Throughout this time, there have been many misunderstandings about what racial profiling actually means. When we talk about “systemic racial profiling,” police leaders sometimes think we are calling police officers racist. We are not.
The Commission defines racial profiling as 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 rather than on reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment. Racial profiling is a particularly damaging form of racial discrimination; and it undermines the relationship between police and racialized and Indigenous individuals, families and communities – just as Mr. Aiken’s trust was undermined.
Lack of trust in policing has negative implications for the justice system, including the risk of people not reporting crime and not cooperating with police. In short, racial profiling has a huge potential to undermine public safety.
As part of our own strategic planning process, the OHRC recently consulted nearly 300 individuals representing more than 80 community and advocacy groups across Ontario, independent officers of the legislature and other stakeholders. Throughout this process, we consistently heard concerns about systemic discrimination in policing, especially related to African Canadians, Muslim and Arab Canadians, other racialized communities, Indigenous peoples, and people with mental health disabilities.
So we are making work related to removing systemic discrimination in the criminal justice sector one of our priorities.
Others are also concerned about racial profiling: U.N.
And we’re not the only organization that is concerned about racial profiling in policing and the criminal justice system in general. I note that the African Canadian Legal Clinic is also before you today to speak about systemic racism in policing. And the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, who visited Ottawa last month, found “clear evidence that racial profiling is endemic in the strategies and practices used by law enforcement.”
The working group urged the Government to “develop and implement an African Canadian Justice Strategy to address the anti-Black racism and discrimination within the criminal justice system.”
The Ontario government is also concerned about what’s happening in our communities, and has appointed Justice Tulloch of the Court of Appeal for Ontario to review the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, Special Investigations Unit and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. The government’s appointment of Justice Tulloch was called in part in response to growing concerns about the increasingly strained relationship between police and community. Concerns that are being heard loud and clear in Ottawa in light of recent high profile incidents.
Need for action now
Although other decision-makers are at various stages in their work on systemic racial profiling, there is some work that the Ottawa Police Service needs to do now. The results of the data report highlight the need for all police services across Ontario, including the OPS, to put in place meaningful and effective measures to prevent and eliminate all forms of racial profiling. And the OPS needs to step up and acknowledge that something is wrong, and commit to doing something about it. Positive change must come from the police themselves, from the chief and board on down.
Police chiefs and boards must…
- Acknowledge systemic discrimination in policing
- Collect data to identify the many circumstances where racial profiling occurs
- Enact policies and procedures to eliminate discrimination
- Encourage independent monitoring and accountability
- And discipline officers who engage in discrimination.
These are the steps I’m urging you to take today. I encourage you to re-conceptualize your idea of community policing. Holding meetings is not enough – you also need ongoing, frequent and meaningful dialogue between officers specifically attached to specific areas and the residents who live in them. Ideally, these officers would reflect the communities they serve.
This will require targeted recruitment of racialized and Indigenous officers. In this way, crime prevention would be centered around partnerships with the community and shared goals. While community consultation is important, it does not replace actively reassessing core policing activities that result in the kind of disproportions we see in the data report.
So beyond the steps the OPS is proposing, it needs to dig deeper to examine itself and reassess its activities.
For the required systemic change to happen, it is important that police services don’t focus their efforts on denying racial profiling and managing community expectations. Instead, they must publicly commit to changing their practices, developing a human rights organization change plan, and then doing the hard work required to make that happen.
Accountability throughout the system
Police services can only succeed if they have the support and the trust of the communities they serve. The Data Collection Project provides evidence of inequitable practices that are likely eroding that trust. As members of the Ottawa Police Services Board, you are in the position to put a vision in place for respecting human rights – and to hold officers accountable when they are not respected.
At the board level, I call on you to mandate human rights-based data collection, like the traffic stop data, to measure and evaluate the extent to which the OPS is meeting its human rights obligations. It is critical for the Board to set up an independent monitoring committee to look at the OPS’s compliance with its policy on racial profiling, and evaluate the OPS’s progress as a measure over time.
I call on you to take corrective action to address systemic discrimination. Pursuing accountability is not about placing blame.
Powerful institutions must accept responsibility when things go wrong – this is a key way to rebuild trust and make our communities safer.
Accountability – Sjaarda
I’m not asking for anything new here. The OPS has a history as a leader in collecting human rights-based data to build accountability. For example, also on the agenda today is discussion of data collected as part a human rights settlement relating to gender equity in the service.
We were pleased to see that the OPS has conducted a gender audit which re-affirmed that it has work to do to improve women’s equality in the OPS and identified areas of particular concern. Gender audits and similar initiatives allow organizations to determine if there are systemic barriers affecting Code-protected groups and to identify what they are.
Perhaps what we are most pleased about is how the OPS has acknowledged that it has systemic issues to address to ensure gender equality. The OPS has met the requirements of the first deadline in the Minutes of Settlement, and has made a clear commitment to fulfill the remaining requirements.
We call on the OPS to take the same steps in dealing with the Traffic Stop Data Report. We urge you to look beyond the numbers to the systemic issues that are clearly at play.We urge you to acknowledge and be accountable for your policies, procedures, and operations which are making it possible for racial profiling to happen. And we urge you to look at your organizational culture to make sure it is a culture of inclusion, not one of inadvertent exclusion.
The Commission is actively monitoring the steps that the Ottawa Police Service is taking to deal with the issues of racial profiling. As always, we would be happy to provide strategic advice to help you meet your legal obligation to provide non-discriminatory police services to the diverse community you serve.
It’s the least we can do for Chad Aiken and everyone else who has not enjoyed the same rights that all Ontarians are entitled to.