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Beverly Bain from 'No Pride in Policing Coalition' addresses Chief James Ramer of the Toronto Police Service, following an apology at a press conference releasing race-based data, at police headquarters in Toronto on June 15.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Toronto Police data show that officers routinely use more force including pointing their firearms on Black residents than on any other racial group in the city, leading the interim Police Chief of Canada’s largest police service to pledge to reduce systemic racism in his force.

The findings are part of a report on data that the Toronto Police Service (TPS) collected in 2020 on use of force and strip searches and, for the first time, is broken down by race. Black people made up nearly 40 per cent of incidents in which police used force against civilians despite only representing about 10 per cent of the Toronto population.

The report prompted an acknowledgment of systemic discrimination in the police service and an apology from interim Toronto Police Chief James Ramer.

“As an organization, we have not done enough to ensure that every person in our city receives fair and unbiased policing. And for this, as chief of police, and on behalf of the service, I am sorry and I apologize unreservedly,” he said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

The Toronto police force has long faced criticism for the way it interacts with racialized communities in the city, and there have been calls to reduce the service’s budget and delegate some tasks to other organizations. The service’s sharpest critics say this new data show that systemic racism still persists, despite years of efforts to reform.

Some of the starkest findings in the report centred around how much more likely police were to use high levels of force against Black people than white people, regardless of whether they were armed.

Black people were 2.3 times more likely than white people to have police point firearms at them – the highest level of force – when they were unarmed. Police meanwhile were 2.7 times more likely to use the lowest level of force (categorized as “physical or other force”) on unarmed white people compared with Black people.

Middle Eastern, East/Southeast Asian and Latino populations were also overrepresented in use-of-force cases relative to each group’s total interactions with police.

The report is significant because it’s based on the Toronto Police Service’s own data. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has published several reports in recent years highlighting systemic racism in the Toronto Police Service.

In 2018, it found that Black residents were 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by Toronto police than their white counterparts; a 2020 study found that use-of-force cases involving Black people (as compared with white people) were more likely to result from proactive policing efforts (such as traffic stops) as opposed to reactive policing (such as calls for service).

Wednesday’s report also looked at strip searches performed by Toronto police in 2020 and found that 31 per cent of strip searches were on Black people (about three times their population size) and 4 per cent were performed on Indigenous people (about four times their population size). The total number of strip searches performed on Torontonians dropped significantly from 2020 to 2021 after a major police policy change.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Chief Ramer announced some of the steps the police service will take in response to the report’s findings, including community town halls and new training for officers.

“Some say we could have and should have acted earlier even without data. I assure you that we are now fully engaged and we have a way to measure the success of our efforts to eradicate racism,” he said.

Shortly after he finished his remarks, Beverly Bain, a Black queer feminist scholar and a member of the No Pride in Policing Coalition, took to a microphone at the police press conference to deliver a passionate rebuke of the Toronto police, rejecting the chief’s apology.

“You’re not apologizing to the Black community, you’re apologizing to your rank and file,” she said.

“You talk about it being a painful and a hurtful process to your police officers, but this is insulting to Black people. This is insulting to Indigenous people. This is insulting to racialized people. This is insulting to the homeless, to those of us who are queer and trans.”

Academics, Black community organizations and the police union also criticized the report and the police’s action plan.

Chief Ramer said the data collected would not be used as a performance management tool for individual officers because it is anonymized and its goal is to address systemic racism rather than individuals’ behaviour. He said disciplinary processes already existed to address an individual officer’s acts of overt racism.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who studies race and the justice system, described this as the greatest flaw in the report.

“The fact that this data and similar data cannot be used for disciplinary purposes is from my perspective a huge shortcoming,” he said. “The TPS should have in place early warning systems to identify officers who are engaging in patterns of behaviour that would be seen to be problematic for early intervention or correction.”

In a press release, the Toronto Police Association, which represents officers, described the findings of the report as “disappointing.”

The report leaves many questions unanswered, “including why disparities exist or what factors could have led to an encounter with police in the first place,” wrote the association’s president, Jon Reid. He added that in cases where inappropriate force is used by officers, one of the many police oversight agencies could hold them accountable.

But these agencies are difficult to navigate and seldom deliver justice, said Moya Teklu, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, which has represented many Black people who have pursued complaints against police.

“The processes are long, retraumatizing and very rarely result in remedies to the wronged people or accountability of individual police officers,” she said.

“There isn’t a way to hold police accountable for their actions right now and the fact that this data cannot be used for performance management is a clear indication of that.”

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