Wednesday , January 20 2021

Human Rights Commission releases 'unprecedented' report on racial profiling by Toronto police

He and summer afternoon in 2015, Julius Haag was cycling downtown when a Toronto police cruiser pulled into the bike lane and flagged him down.

"They stopped me for what they called a bicycle safety check," the 33-year-old said. "They made me lock the brakes on my bike and ring the bell."

After running through the check, the Hague says the officers quickly moved on to the real reason for the stop – what critics call an arbitrary street check, otherwise known as carding.

The officers asked why he was in the neighborhood, what he did for work, and if he had ever been in trouble with the police, the Haag said.

"It's offensive, it's humiliating, it's dehumanizing," said the Haag, and a PhD student who studies race and policing.

More than three years later, the experience conjures difficult memories. He remembers worrying that a colleague might see him being questioned. He felt trapped.

"Even for myself, someone who knows their rights with the police, you still in that situation feel like you can not leave," he explained. "You feel like you're being detained."

Inquiry 7 years of police data

Experiences like the Haag have been widely reported in Toronto for decades, but the issue of racial profiling and discrimination by police has not been studied with extensive internal police data by an official agency.

On Monday, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released the findings of what it called an "unprecedented" inquiry into racing and policing in Toronto.

You can watch the presentation at 10:15 am. ET in the video above, followed by comments from the chief commissioner and members of the city's black community.

The OHRC examined the internal police statistics from 2010 to 2017 for the report, which is expected to be the most thorough investigation of police profiling and discrimination ever conducted in Ontario.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission's Renu Mandhane says discrimination plays a key role in what she calls 'the pipeline to criminalization.' (CBC)

"We have seen a generation after the generation of black Canadians have their lives irreparably damaged by racial profiling," said chief commissioner of the OHRC Renu Mandhane in 2017, when the inquiry was launched. "We owe a different future to our children."

The report will include details on the use of stop-and-question practices, the use of force, and arrests in various offense categories such as simple drug possession and failure to comply with bail conditions.

These statistics will be combined with stories from people with lived experience being profiled or discriminated against. The approach is designed to "pinpoint where racial disparities exist," Mandhane said.

The OHRC has also examined Toronto police culture, training, policies, procedures and accountability mechanisms.

Will the police be open to change?

Toronto police said they are "welcoming" the findings, and that they have taken steps to address bias. Last year, the police board adopted new policies on carding, which state that people can not be stopped at random, or only on the basis of their race.

But the board said the police could continue to keep the data they gathered from stopping and questioning individuals.

While reports and studies on Toronto's profiling and discrimination have been conducted before, it's rare than internal police data on the intersection of race and policing has been examined.

For this report, the OHRC was able to access data from the Toronto Police, the Toronto Police Services Board and the Special Investigations Unit, which investigates police incidents involving injuries or deaths.

That type of data is often available in the United States, but it has rarely been released in Canada, experts say.

"One of the problems with examining races and policing in Canada and Toronto in particular is that we do not have access to good data that is broken down by race," said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Toronto.

Sociologist Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders has not yet shown a commitment to tackle racial discrimination. (CBC)

Owusu-Bempah said existing research has shown significant racial disparities in areas including stop and search practices, detention before trial and use of force.

"Research on police cultures has shown that culture is itself conducive to racial discrimination," Owusu-Bempah told CBC Toronto. "Police have a very 'us versus them' mentality."

Toronto police said they will comment on the report when it's made public Monday morning.

Owusu-Bempah said he will be watching that response closely, however it is doubtful that Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders is ready to tackle the issue head-on.

"I'm not sure that this administration is ready to deal fully with some of the issues related to racing and policing," he said, arguing that Saunders has not taken a progressive approach to racing and policing.

To win some trust from Toronto's racialized communities, the Haag says the police could introduce a new oversight body that focuses on racism. He also wants the force to introduce more robust and sustained training, as well as transparent accountability for officers who violate expectations.

"It's a long-term effort, not a one-time thing that comes around when a report is published," he said.

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