Racial profiling by police is in the headlines in both Toronto and the US. In Toronto, a Human Rights Tribunal decision found that a Toronto constable racially profiled Ron Phipps while the latter was delivering mail in Toronto’s tony Bridle Path neighbourhood (this is where Mr. Purple Rain, Prince, lived).
In the US, respected African-American professor, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested after Cambridge police responded to a 911 caller’s suspicion of a B&E. It seems that Dr. Gates was locked out of his home and managed to MacGyver his way in. Police showed up, demanded proof that Gates resided in the domicile in question, and Gates complied producing ID and his Harvard faculty identification. Gates lost his temper at what he perceived to be foul treatment by the police and he was arrested and escorted out of his own home in handcuffs.
In a press conference this week on health care reform, President Obama said that Cambridge police acted “stupidly”.
Back to Toronto. While patrolling the Bridle Path neighbourhood, the constable kept an eye on Mr. Phipps, talking to a homeowner and checking with another postie (who is white) about Phipps’ identity. The HRTO decision noted that while the constable may not have been overtly racist, his actions were motivated by Phipps’ skin colour. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair believes the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruling sets an unfair precedent.
Blair states that simply verifying information isn’t in itself wrong. I think Chief Blair is a thoughtful and erudite individual and Toronto is better because of him (a breath of fresh air after that perennially pissed-off Julian Fantino). Indeed, I can see how he might be concerned about how police can perform their jobs, but racial profiling remains a grave concern.
Toronto is a diverse city. About half of its population was born outside of Canada and 47% of Torontonians identify themselves as “visible minorities”. Of this 47%, about 12% are South Asian, 11% are Chinese, and 8% are black (the remaining minorities are Filipino and Latin Americans).
While the Toronto police force has done an admirable job striving for diversity, the Phipps’ case may indicate that there is still some work to do.
I make this statement because I wonder how the police officer would have reacted had Phipps been a white postal carrier.
Now here’s where things get tricky: understanding racial profiling has not been easily measured through statistical analysis. That is, much of it relies on anecdotes and as we know, anecdotes are not scientific.
In 2002, the Toronto Star based a report on statistics collected by police and found that blacks were treated with greater suspicion and held on offences more often than whites. The Toronto Police countered with a report, claiming the Star’s article was based on “junk science”. However, the Toronto Police report’s methodology was similarly savaged.
In the US and the UK, better studies indicate that racial profiling does indeed exist and that certain minorities, typically blacks, are stopped and searched more often than whites.
But we have to contend with a variety of variables: cultures and customs, social issues and, most interestingly, police patrolling patterns. If the police patrol a certain neighbourhood or ethnic enclave more often than other neighbourhoods, is it statistically reasonable that more ethnic groups will be over-represented in arrests?
In a 1994 survey, 76% of black respondents thought that blacks were treated worse than whites by police. About half of whites surveyed held this view. This indicates that there is an apprehension of bias on the part of blacks, and in jurisprudence, an apprehension of bias is a serious matter.
Further, the 1994 survey found that 31% of black Torontonians were stopped by police on multiple occasions within the past year while 12% of white Torontonians were stopped. This particular survey doesn’t say why they were detained (eg traffic violations, random check), but blacks are disproportionately represented.
Racial profiling can be a hot topic and one that many feel is rife with politics, but as our cities become more ethnically diverse, we must take this matter seriously.
Policing communities should also be about building relationships and trust and not only enforcing the law. We need better data and we need a better understanding of how, why or if racial profiling is happening and to what extent. Then we need to stamp it out.