Anger vented at Ottawa police racial profiling forum

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Let's Chat About Racial Profiling was an interactive forum that brought together Ottawa Police Service representatives and residents to discuss the police service's draft policy on racial profiling.

Organized by the OPS Board on Nov. 30, 2010 as part of its community engagement strategy, it was meant to solicit feedback. Since the strategy's introduction two-and-a-half years ago, the board has held eight such public interest meetings in Ottawa to address important community issues and sensitize the public to the board's role and work.

On this occasion the forum's goals were not achieved, as the meeting quickly bogged down in debate about the uncouth police treatment of Stacy Bonds, an Ottawa woman who was allegedly manhandled, kicked and strip-searched in police cells in 2008, and others like her.

Many of those present gave voice to their frustration, anger and disappointment about the dehumanizing practices of ethno-racial profiling in policing in Ottawa. More drastic measures -- beyond policy -- would be required, they said. Anything short of this would be seen as window-dressing. Mere policy would position the police as champions of diversity and tolerance.

By failing to act on injustices perpetrated by "their own" against non-white citizens in the City of Ottawa, the OPS had created a situation in which the city's racialized minorities perceived police as working solely in their own interest.

The ongoing difficult relationship between the OPS and the city's ethno-racial minorities is emblematic of a legitimation crisis. Some community members, including those belonging to ethnoracial minority groups, were not totally opposed to the proposed police initiative. But most demanded greater police accountability. Their reaction said that the proposed policy was unresponsive to their needs and their experiences of differential and unequal treatment: in a word, racism.

Years of community consultations, roundtables, meetings and community-police partnerships could have produced a racial profiling policy reflecting community wisdom. But the incongruence between the OPS draft policy and what the community has been saying all along suggest that the police have not been listening to the community's recommendations for change. In the words of one participant, what the community needs from the police is for "heads to roll" -- a sentiment echoed by many at the meeting.

The Ottawa Police Service appears to be practising a form of democratic racism. In theory, they acknowledge the injustices of discriminatory practices; yet in practice, they do not take the bold action necessary to eradicate or minimize the impact of their own discriminatory actions, behaviours, and practices. As another participant stated, the outright dismissal for professional misconduct of professionals in fields like medicine should serve as a guidepost for police services. If much is demanded of physicians as regards service delivery to the public, should we not hold the police to the same standard of professionalism and accountability?

Police culture reflects the wider systemic and structural racism embedded in society. This culture does not always allow for the transformative action needed for the meaningful resolution of racial profiling. One such action, admittedly controversial, would be to change the Police Services Act in the Province of Ontario to permit the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy on substantiated allegations of racial profiling. Such a policy would direct police chiefs to fire any police officer found to have engaged in racial profiling.

These viewpoints were strongly endorsed by community members at the meeting. A loud and clear message was sent to Chief Vern White and the rest of police membership: the community deserves better than it is getting.

The OPS draft policy fails to say what the penalties should be for those found to engage in racial profiling. It could have taken a more critical, progressive stance on the matter. By failing to act forcefully against officers who have exercised their police powers in a discriminatory fashion, the OPS has created all members of the police service as accomplices in racism. In fact, OPS inaction has created conditions that allow racial discrimination and inequity to continue.

Notwithstanding current challenges, the Ottawa Police Service has made efforts to eliminate racial profiling in policing. Between 2006 and 2008 the OPS partnered with Carleton University's School of Social Work, the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, the Somali Centre for Family Services, and Jewish Family Services of Ottawa to work on a federally funded project: Community Policing -- A Shared Responsibility, on racial profiling in policing. The project had many successes, with the police/youth-of-colour dialogue, a first-of-its-kind roundtable discussion, being one. Events from the project resulted in a total of 12 recommendations on how the police could improve relations with racialized youth and their communities.

These recommendations were presented to the chief of police, the OPS executive services team, and the Ottawa Police Services Board. Two-and-a-half years later, very little has changed. Few of the recommendations have been implemented.

At a time when the population of ethno-racial minorities is growing in Ottawa and the rest of Canada, it is imperative that the Ottawa Police Service begin to attend to the demands of this growing population. Police leadership needs to take a tougher stance on acts of racial profiling, however unpopular the police service may find it. The police must remember the oath they swore to uphold: to protect and serve. This oath extends to addressing racial intolerance, oppression, and discrimination wherever they may lurk.

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. For a copy of the final project report, email: . For the OPS draft policy (Policy No: 1.08) on racial profiling, click here

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