Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a faculty member in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. He serves as a special adviser to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
It is time for the Toronto Police Service to stop apologizing about racist policing and start doing something meaningful to address it. The force’s current approaches are clearly not cutting it.
Data released Wednesday paint a damning picture of the nature of race and policing in the city, showing that Black people are overrepresented in both use-of-force incidents and strip searches. As the force itself acknowledges, these differences cannot be explained away by the behaviour of the individuals involved, which means responsibility lies with the police. Chief James Ramer points to systemic racism. I’d suggest systemic racism and years of inaction – itself a reflection of systemic racism.
As someone who has been researching race and policing in Toronto now for two decades, the findings are neither novel nor surprising. Public response to the chief’s news conference would suggest that my sentiment is shared by other members of Toronto’s Black communities, who have been recounting stories of police discrimination and demanding action for much longer than I have been doing this work.
Some readers will remember the names of Buddy Evans and Albert Johnson, Black men killed by the Toronto police in the late 1970s. Their deaths prompted social unrest and led to the creation of the Office of the Public Complaints Commissioner. In 1988, Lester Donaldson was shot to death by the Toronto police, and the province struck the Race Relations and Policing Task Force. Throughout the early 1990s, the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System conducted extensive research and released its final report in 1995, highlighting among other things high rates of police shootings involving Black people in Toronto.
In 2006, in his contribution to the Ipperwash Inquiry, University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley analyzed Special Investigations Unit data and showed very clearly that Black people were overrepresented in police use of force in Toronto, including police shootings. In 2020, Prof. Wortley published a similar study for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which again showed Black people overrepresented in police use-of-force cases in Toronto. Well over 40 years of public outrage and 30 years of task forces are still giving us the same outcome: Black people disproportionately injured and killed by the police.
Let’s also not forget the response of the police leadership when these issues have been raised. Whereas police chief Julian Fantino said it was unfair to portray the police force as racist, subsequent chiefs have taken a different approach. Bill Blair admitted racism was a problem and vowed to tackle it – clearly he fell short. Mark Saunders took a knee with demonstrators after the murder of George Floyd. Symbolic? Perhaps. Substantive? Absolutely not.
So how did we get to a place where the police are pro-actively releasing race-based data on their interactions with the public? They do so in part because they are compelled to. The Toronto Police Service, just like every other police service in the province, is mandated to annually release racially disaggregated data on regulated interactions (“street checks”) and on use of force. What differentiates it from most other services is that in 2019 its board adopted a race-based data collection, analysis and reporting policy after a recommendation it received from an advisory panel struck in the wake of the death of Andrew Loku (yet another Black man killed by the Toronto police). The policy and associated strategy set out a plan and procedures to collect, analyze and release race-based data across a host of policing outcomes.
This is positive. What is less positive is how long it will likely take for the entire strategy to be enacted (it follows a phased-in approach) and what the data can actually be used for. As the chief pointed out, the service will not use the race-based data it collects to identify or discipline individual officers. To me this is nonsensical. In what world would we collect such vital information on the potentially troubling actions of individuals and then not use that very data to identify and perhaps discipline those individuals?
A close read of the action items that accompany the release of this data reveals a heavy emphasis on training and a strong focus on data. What I don’t see are adequate measures to address individual (conscious and unconscious) and institutional racism. We have a modicum of transparency masquerading as police accountability. Toronto deserves better.
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