A human-rights report issued Wednesday on the much-criticized police practice of street checks found black Nova Scotians are stopped five times more than their white counterparts, with the author calling for an immediate provincewide moratorium.
Members of the African Nova Scotian community said street checks should be immediately banned and called for an official apology.
"The research clearly demonstrates that police street-check practices have had a disproportionate and negative impact on the African Nova Scotian community," said Scot Wortley, the University of Toronto criminologist who led the study.
“Street checks have contributed to the criminalization of black youth, eroded trust in law enforcement and undermined the perceived legitimacy of the entire criminal-justice system,” he said.
Listening in the audience at a press conference for the release of the report was 20-year-old Trayvone Clayton, who approached a microphone during a question period to address Halifax Regional Police board chair Steve Craig.
“How does it make you feel that myself and others are scared of the police?” Mr. Clayton asked. “Why am I a target? Why are we always judged because of our skin colour?”
Amid allegations of systematic racial profiling by police in Halifax, Prof. Wortley was asked in 2017 by Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission to study the use of street checks by members of the Halifax Regional Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
His analysis of police data from the 12-year span between 2006 and 2017 shows the equivalent of nearly two street checks for every one black person residing in the Halifax region. There was only one street check for every three white people. During that period, the statistical equivalent of more than 15 per cent of the black population was street-checked compared with 2.5 per cent of the white population.
Prof. Wortley said black men and boys appear to be a particularly vulnerable “target.” The equivalent of 28 per cent of Halifax’s black male population was street-checked by police compared with just 4 per cent of the white population during that same 12-year span, according to his findings.
After presenting his 180-page report, which included input from 11 community meetings and consultations with more than 250 members of the black Nova Scotian community, Prof. Wortley recommended a moratorium on street checks until a decision can be made on whether they will be banned or regulated by new policies. He also recommended the province obtain a legal opinion on the lawfulness of street checks.
“I don’t think we can go on as we have been going,” Prof. Wortley said. “The consequences associated with current street-check practices clearly outweigh any crime-prevention benefits."
Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey, a former RCMP officer who is also responsible for human rights, would not commit to a ban on Wednesday.
“I take these findings seriously and I promise action. This report will not sit on a shelf. I make that commitment,” he said. But more time is needed to consider the impact of a ban, he said.
“If we ban it, are we driving this practice underground? I need time to do that analysis,” he said.
In the meantime, police across the province have been told not to place quotas on street checks or to use them as performance measurement tools. They have also been told to “reacquaint themselves” with the police code of conduct and ethics, Mr. Furey said.
That action does not go far enough said Robert Wright of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition.
“Our position is that street checks are illegal and should be banned,” he said. “What we’re dealing with is a historical and structural problem. This is not a ‘bad apples’ gambit,” he said.
Mr. Clayton, the young man who stood up in the audience on Wednesday to tell his story, said he had done nothing wrong the night police first stopped him. He was 16 at the time and on his way home from a party, alone. And yet, he found himself in police custody, face-down on the street with an officer’s knee on his back and a bleeding shoulder.
“I’m a black youth in a white community,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I got stopped. [The officer] tried to put me up for assault and resisting arrest. Yet I’m the one face-to-the-ground.”
Mr. Clayton’s father, Marcus James, told the panellists that the racism underpinning the police check data is a “generational curse that has plagued our African Nova Scotian community.”
The black community deserves a resolution now, he said. “I risk my son every single night when he goes out the door. You’re not hearing that fear. We need to address that," he said, adding that police checks “need to stop immediately. There is no other way to stop the fear.”
Mr. Craig, chair of the Board of Police Commissioners for the Halifax Regional Municipality, told Mr. Clayton and Mr. James he is “outraged” and “saddened” by their stories. He and his fellow police commissioners were “shaken to the core” by the incidents recounted in Mr. Wortley’s report, Mr. Craig said.
One mother told Prof. Wortley she has taught her son to call her for his own protection when police stop him.
“I keep him on the phone during the police stop to make sure he’s going to be okay,” she told Prof. Wortley. “I just don’t trust that they will treat him properly. I don’t trust that he’ll be safe.”
Another mother said her 11-year-old and 12-year-old children have been stopped since the age of eight. “They start to treat us like criminals young. I worry how it will impact the kids,” she said.
Christine Hanson, director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, said the report is evidence of “systemic racism in Nova Scotia … not just in policing in the [Halifax Regional Municipality].”
“Street checks may just be the tip of the iceberg,” she said, adding: “The hard work here … now begins.”