Ottawa Citizen

Confrontin­g racism in the police force

Diverse input needed to address troubling trends, writes Sulaimon Giwa.

- Sulaimon Giwa is a critical race scholar and researcher with an interest in racialized policing.

The new year is a time to reflect on the past and plan to do things differentl­y. Police relations with racialized communitie­s in Ottawa remain tense and, as we learned in 2016, could easily disintegra­te. Effective applicatio­n of evidence-based knowledge is key to prevention against differenti­al police practice, and to improving police-community relations.

The November informatio­n session and panel discussion on the results of the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project missed the opportunit­y to improve race relations between the Ottawa Police Service and racialized communitie­s. After two years of data collection, consisting of 81,902 traffic-stop records, the York University research team was unable to confirm or refute if the police engage in racial profiling. Although the results indicate that young black and Middle Eastern men were stopped two to three times more than can be reasonably justified, given the distributi­on of drivers’ race in Ottawa, the York researcher­s cautioned against concluding that this evidence indicates racial profiling.

The reason? The correlatio­nal study was not designed to establish cause-effect relationsh­ip. This reasoning is understand­able but woefully inadequate in its failure to grasp the importance of the changes needed in Ottawa’s police-minority relations.

No research is perfect, but this research’s limitation­s raise more questions than they answer.

The data regarding indigenous people — not categorize­d as “visible minorities” in Canada — was questionab­ly silent in terms of their interactio­n with the police. An Ottawa police officer’s response to the recent death of celebrated Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook suggests there is reason to be concerned about police treatment of this group. In fact, it took police Chief Charles Bordeleau close to a month to acknowledg­e that Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar’s comment amounted to racism. By limiting their focus to traffic stops — an issue racialized communitie­s opposed in 2013 — the researcher­s lost a real opportunit­y to capture the struggles and lived realities of this marginaliz­ed segment of the population.

On a positive note, the research provides quantitati­ve evidence for racialized communitie­s to support their individual and collective accounts of differenti­al treatment, as evidenced by the fact that black and Middle Eastern men experience disproport­ionately high incidences of traffic stops. This fact alone — whether the data confirms racial profiling or not — is concerning.

What can be done? Five recommenda­tions were tabled for action: determine sources of disproport­ionality; develop and implement solutions; increase policecomm­unity consultati­on; continue race data collection; and make race data available. Sadly, these proposals are not entirely new or unique. In fact, they parallel the findings and recommenda­tions of an earlier community-based project funded by the Department of Heritage Canada, which explored for the first time racial profiling by Ottawa police. It is not clear if the York research team used the content of this work, which may have been helpful with question formulatio­n, research design and methodolog­y for the current study.

We have not progressed much from the inception of data collection in 2013. The same questions are still being asked about how to deal with racist officers, how to reform police culture and improve accountabi­lity and how to strengthen police-minority relations, especially with racialized youth.

As the Ottawa police prepare to move this project into its next phase and establish a committee to inform the direction of its work, it is crucial that the community selection process be transparen­t. However, the complacenc­y and nepotism entrenched within existing police-community consultati­ve groups hinder progress on the police-minority race file in Ottawa.

Lacking revitaliza­tion, membership in these groups becomes stale and may result in individual­s’ inability to speak truth to power. A range of diverse perspectiv­es must be included, some of which continue to be marginaliz­ed. Only through inclusive practices that welcome critical voices on policing reform can we expect to address the roots of racism and racial profiling in policing.

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