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Institutional Response to Racial Profiling

Ottawa Police Race Data Collection Project

by SULAIMON GIWA

As part of a legal settlement between the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) in the racial profiling case involving Chad Aiken, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) will begin to collect race-based data regarding motorists involved in traffic stops. Approximately 100,000 traffic stops are expected to be made during a two-year (2013–2015) period.

Set to launch in June, the OPS has been engaged in a number of activities to solicit feedback about the project from key community stakeholders. Their latest effort was a consultation at the RA Centre held on January 31, 2013, attended by about 150 people. In the first half of the evening, participants were given background information including a definition of the project, a statement of its scope and objectives, and a brief overview and discussion of the state of racial profiling research in Canada. In the second half, participants engaged in table discussions about the project, using a set of predefined questions. The results of these discussions were then shared with the larger audience, providing a good opportunity to hear everyone’s thoughts on the direction of the data collection and evaluation efforts.

I am concerned about what was constituted as legitimate discourse in the first half of the evening and their implications for the project going forward. For example, immediately after the settlement between the OHRC and OPSB was made public, members of racialized communities queried why the police had limited data collection to the race of motorists and not pedestrians. Chad Aiken, his lawyer, and members of racialized communities had been vocal about the need for bias-free policing at all points of contact, not only in vehicle stops. But this concern went under the radar.

The OPS has repeatedly stated its commitment to addressing the community’s concern over racial profiling. However, OPS resistance to extending the collection of race data beyond vehicle stops reduces the complex matter of racial profiling to a simple case of traffic stops. In doing so, it demonstrates a lack of understanding about the systemic nature of racial discrimination.

The OPS and its supporters point out the good work the police service is doing on bias-free policing. But while some efforts have been made, very little, if any, substantive change in police culture or police-minority relations has come about.

In response to this criticism, the OPS points out that it is the first police service in Canada to have a racial profiling policy, one that is the most comprehensive in the developed world. But it fails to stipulate what, if any, disciplinary or remedial action would be taken against an officer found to have engaged in racial profiling. For racialized communities, accountability is central to organizational responses to racial profiling. This perspective was strongly expressed at the Let’s Chat About Racial Profiling forum that took place in November 2010. Over two years later, this demand seems to have gone by the wayside. In its place is a call for traffic stop race data endorsed by the OPS, OHRC, and the York University research team hired to lead the project. Judging from this list, it is not clear that members of affected communities were party to the discussions that decided upon collecting race data only in traffic stops.

With the direction of the project largely determined prior to the consultation this past January, one wonders if public input would make any difference at this point. The most salient issues, such as the scope of the data collection activity, and the study’s focus on police perception of driver’s race, are not up for discussion or negotiation. Yet, for racialized communities, these issues are at the heart of current contestation. In a democracy, the exercise of majority will in opposition to the wishes of those in less powerful positions will not bring about sustainable change.

Despite the OPS’s well-intentioned goal of inspiring confidence in racialized communities, the recent consultation provided key social actors such as the police leadership and research team with a platform for the circulation of discourses that were meant to entrench the police position. Instructively, these discourses exposed how the police seek to advance their own agenda against the expectations of minority racial groups.

The Discourse of Definition and Context

Conceptual and operational definitions are important elements to consider in research. The former relates to a concept’s overall meaning while the latter attends to the process by which one intends to measure the variables associated with the conceptual construct. By their nature, definitions have the power to shape people’s thinking and, more importantly, to inform official response about social problems. The OPS and the study’s research team have chosen to define racial profiling in a rather narrow way, as: “patterns showing disproportionately more traffic stops for individuals of one racial group over another.” Although evidence exists in support of racial disparity in traffic stops, this is by no means the only place where this phenomenon materializes. Police racial profiling also occurs in airports and near places of worship. Pedestrians are often stopped. Defining the concept in this restrictive manner gives the public the erroneous impression that racial profiling is essentially about traffic stops. In this way, the police can deflect attention away from the broad effects of police racism, as to obscure its systemic nature. This deflection tactic may serve to absolve police leadership of their responsibility to work towards racialized communities’ ongoing demand for meaningful disciplinary or remedial action in substantiated cases of racial profiling. While the possibility of doing nothing is not an option, under the current definition the police can be seen as working in the interest of racialized communities even when the scope of study may not be the most controversial. Thus, the definition serves the purpose of silencing critical voices regarding the parameters of study activity. If community members were to ask why race data do not apply to pedestrian stops, the response would be that this was not the purpose of the project.

The Discourse of Scientific Objectivity

Two important questions raised during the consultation had to do with study outcome: What would happen if the findings revealed no evidence of racial profiling? And, are racialized communities to conclude that there is no racial profiling? These questions, at the core of proposed research, cast doubt on the credibility of the process itself. The issue raised is one familiar to most academics and researchers—the Hawthorne effect. This occurs when research respondents alter their behaviours because they know they are being studied. Any interference with accurate self-report can affect data quality and by extension data analysis. Implicit in this discourse is that “the truth” about whether the police engage in racial profiling can be uncovered in a straightforward fashion through objective, scientific research. Given the widespread coverage and knowledge of the project among rank-and-file officers, however, is it realistic to expect that officers would conduct themselves in a “business-as-usual” manner, even if the results of the data were not used for disciplinary action or performance evaluation? Would officers engaged in the practice of racial profiling openly do so knowing that their actions were what the study hoped to expose? There is no easy answer to these questions. However, the OPS leadership and the study’s research team would have us believe that through their efforts the study would yield objective, independent truth. This idea, hidden behind a veil of scientific objectivity, underrate how deeply rooted racism is in Canadian society. The lack of trust between police and racial minority communities, coupled with the knowledge that the police have not always been sensitive to the needs of these groups, are concerns not to be easily dismissed.

The Discourse of Numbers and Adulation

The OPS project is the largest of its kind in Canada. This fact is not lost on the OPS or the study’s research team. Numbers (i.e., the study’s length and size) have become a key selling point for engendering community support about the initiative. Repeated enough times, it is hoped that the public would grasp the historical significance of the journey the OPS is about to embark on, and offer their support to the Service. Although I agree with the need for public involvement and support of the OPS leadership, such support should not be given uncritically. What, if anything, do the proposed 100,000 traffic stops hope to reveal to community members subjected to the unfortunate experience of racial discrimination? Whilst the sheer sample size would permit statistical analysis of the data collected, what does the privileging of this method of inquiry say about our beliefs and values regarding the structure of knowledge production?

Specifically, such questions as what counts as knowledge, whose knowledge counts, and how such knowledge gets shaped are crucial to the ways social reality is discursively and materially produced. In the current situation, there is need for trepidation regarding the prevailing discourse that higher sample size equates to better results, given the narrow scope of the research investigation. Likewise, the repeated framing of the current project as uncharted territory, however accurate it may be, should not overshadow the real pain and injustice encountered by victims of police racial profiling. Care must be taken by the police, OHRC, and research team that their enthusiasm for the transformative possibilities this project represents, does not develop into a euphoric rush of self-congratulation. After all, when the OPS failed to acknowledge racial profiling in its ranks, it was racialized communities who did the difficult work of bringing the issue to public awareness. It is they who deserve the right to shape this project and to congratulate themselves on what has been accomplished.

Sulaimon Giwa is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, School of Social Work, at York University. He was the co-ordinator for Community Policing: A Shared Responsibility (2006-2008), a project which received federal funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage to address racism and racial profiling in policing in Ottawa. He can be reached by email at sol.giwa@gmail.com