The Toronto Star’s 2010 investigative series on racial profiling proved the black community right. It is not often that disputes about perspective are conclusively settled with one side clearly right. However, the difference of opinion between the black community and the police force over whether the Toronto police engage in the practice of racial profiling may finally be settled.
Last month, The Star released an analysis of 1.7 million “contact cards” (documents that identify the age, gender, race, physical features and the address of individuals stopped by the police) collected between 2003 and 2008. The analysis showed conclusively that race influence who gets stopped. Specifically, the analysis shows blacks are three times more likely to be stopped than whites, and black males are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and documented than white males. The Toronto Star first published articles charging the Toronto police force with the use of profiling as a regular part of its practice in 2002. At that time, the police authority responded with angry denials and a $2.7 million libel suit against The Star. This time in response to The Star’s report, there was no angry denial or threat of lawsuit from the police, just tacit acceptance of the results.
Even before The Star’s 2002 report, the black community contended it was treated differently — harsher — by the police. For as many years as the black community made the claims, the police force denied the claims. The police, the black community was told, did not engage in the practice of profiling; the police, the black community was told, was simply doing its job.
It was not until a 2005 Canadian Race Relations Foundation report that the experiences of the black community took on some degree of objective legitimacy. The report asserts that anecdotal reports of racial profiling by the black community were routinely “denied and dismissed” by the Toronto police force. Further, the report notes that in response to the 2002 Star report and the consistent claims from the black community, the President of the Police Association issued a “threat…directed at the black community when he suggested that the police might not respond to calls from the community if they continue to engage in these kinds of allegations.” Although important in conferring legitimacy to the claims of the black community, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s report did not resolve the dispute over the existence of profiling. At that point, the dispute between the black community and the police force still remained a matter of perspective.
Now, in light of The Star’s 2010 investigative report, the individual and collective experiences of the black community around the issue of racial profiling can no longer be dismissed as simple “allegations.” Instead, our experiences have been substantiated. It turns out, the black community was right when it said our members were routinely stopped for doing nothing wrong. We were right when we said we were routinely stopped for driving a nice car. We were right when we said we were routinely stopped for driving at a certain time of day (too early or too late). We were right when we said we were routinely stopped for driving in certain parts of the city (impoverished or upscale). We were right when we said we were stopped for driving a nice car, late at night, in an upscale neighbourhood. Now the claims that the Toronto police force use racial profiling as a regular part of its practice is no longer a matter of perspective, but a proven fact.
Psychologically, however, the impact of repeated denials and even threats directed at the black community should not be underestimated. The black community has paid a heavy price for advocating for itself and speaking out against an unfair police practice. David Tanovich in his book, The Colour of Justice: Policing Race in Canada, speaks of the “enormous psychological” damage profiling creates. A 2006 Amnesty International report adds further clarity when it states racial profiling creates feelings of humiliation, depression, anger, fear, diminished trust in law enforcement, and reluctance to turn to law enforcement for help as the internalized results of directly being profiled or witnessing someone being profiled. Further, on the community level, racial profiling breeds mistrust of, lack of cooperation with, and reluctance to report crimes to authorities. It is worth considering that the results of these findings may provide some insight into the current acrimonious climate that exists between the black community and the police.
Much is different in the city of Toronto since The Star’s initial report in 2002. One important difference is a new chief of police for the Toronto police force. Unlike his predecessor, Chief Bill Blair’s reaction was not to deny the practice of racial profiling occurs but to promise to take action about the problem that exists in his force. This is a very positive development. In the future, this new attitude may bring about real tangible changes in police practice. In the meantime, however, healing needs to occur to mend the relationship between the black community and the police force. To begin that process, an apology from the police force — regarding the years of denial, dismissals, and threats — to the black community is warranted.
Tricia Hylton is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ontario.
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