New findings released on race-based data from the Toronto Police Service are another grim reminder of the realities of law enforcement in Canada. 119-page document, title Understanding race and identity based data collection strategies: the use of force and strip searches in 2020Explores 949 incidents involving 7,114 strip searches and the use of force.
The report found that black, indigenous and racial people were over-represented in “enforcement actions” by police. For example, although black people made up 10 percent of Toronto’s population, they were involved in 22.6 percent of law enforcement actions such as arrests, tickets and warnings.
There is a disproportionate effect of the use of force on different minority groups – Black, Latino, East/Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern people were over-represented by factors of 1.6 times, 1.5 times, 1.2 times and 1.2 times, respectively. Minorities were also more likely to have weapons prepared against them by the police.
These findings are familiar, yet very disturbing. There have been years of community counseling, “reform,” cultural sensitivity, anti-bias training, and diversity and inclusivity policies and programs. But the problem of disproportionate use of force by the police is refusing to go away.
These findings are not organizational accidents – they reflect conscious and unconscious decisions to use force when dealing with certain segments of the population.
disgrace and pardon
Toronto’s interim police chief, James Ramer, apologized on June 15: “As an organization, we have not done enough to ensure that everyone in our city receives fair and impartial policing. … Police Chief As and the police on his behalf, I am sorry and I apologize unconditionally.”
However, activists and Toronto minority leaders are deeply disappointed. Beverly Bain from the No Pride in Policing Coalition refused to accept the chief’s apology: “What we asked you to do is stop. To stop brutalizing us. To stop killing us.” Bain said. Ramar’s apology was called a “public relations stunt”, which he considered “outrageous” to those affected.
The apology and its denial reflect the growing gulf between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect. If they continue to do the exact same thing then they have no need to apologize. Apologizing becomes an empty, demonstrative act designed to save face and get a news conference through with limited harm.
My research team and I began studying the use of police force in the late 2000s, specifically using energy weapons (CEWs) such as Tasers. We found that men belonging to ethnic minority groups with a recent immigration history, those who suffered from mental health problems or a history of substance abuse were over-represented among those who died during or immediately after CEW use. It happened after
In 2021, I served as Special Adviser to the Government of Alberta’s Police Act Review. I saw for the first time the dismay of the under-served and over-policed population during public engagement sessions. Many citizens were tired of being abused by those who were paid to defend themselves.
Bain’s refusal to accept the chief’s apology also underscores the fact that accountability and responsibility are missing from the report. Who are the officials responsible for these incidents? What disciplinary actions did they face? Is annual death, injury and psychological damage an acceptable price that certain sections of society must be prepared to bear forever? Is there no alternative to this approach of law enforcement?
It is one thing to admit that there is a problem with the police service, another to ensure accountability to reduce criminals. Without it, the next report would be identical to the current report. For the communities being targeted, this means more victimized victims, families and friend circles.
American sociologist Harvey Sachs has argued that, as business experts, police use a “dissonance process”. This means they focus on assessing who is in place or out of place.
Therefore, being “noticeable” or “visible” is perceived as potentially distracting and noticeable. This has translated into treating the presence of black or indigenous people as a problem in itself, even when they are simply driving, barbecuing or shopping among other activities.
Being young is not a panacea.
In Canada, children under the age of seven have been arrested in handcuffs on charges of school tantrums. As recently as November last year, a Kitchener school called the police on a four-year-old black girl.
Beyond the police-citizen interactions that contributed to these statistics, the persistence of this issue is an expression of generations of limited recruitment practices and an organizational and business culture of impunity.
These issues have been the subject of many sociological studies. Research shows that officers who use excessive force make up less than 10 percent of uniformed police service personnel, and yet the protectionist circle around irreplaceable officers remains a major problem that remains unaddressed.
Officers’ misconduct causes serious damage to the efforts of officers who perform their jobs fairly and conscientiously.
When incidents of police misconduct come to light, officers are defended or placed on paid leave. The role of police unions, employment contracts, the famous wall of silence and an ultra-masculine organizational context is well documented.
From reports to recommendations
The Toronto Police Service is a leader in creating reports and commissions of inquiry into officer misconduct. For example, in 2014 after a police officer killed Sammy Yetim on a streetcar, Justice Frank Iacobucci presented a report with 84 recommendations.
Recommendations include prioritizing hiring people with university degrees from disciplines such as nursing and social work. Research shows that officers who rely heavily on the force and are prone to excessive force deployment usually have a grade 12 level of education or less.
This is common in scores of police jurisdictions. Such officers are also men. Police high school diplomas and the Old Boys Network Corps need to be dismantled and recruited more women, minorities, and people with university degrees.
In addition to eliminating unfair contractual terms that make committed leadership and accountability for change impossible, these moves have the potential to improve the organizational culture of police forces.
The use of force report also shows the impact of legislative changes. The Ontario Anti-Racism Act of 2017 made possible the collection and release of the report. While this is not a relief to those affected, it is a central part of the grim reality regarding the use of police force.
The public deserves better given the share of common purse that is spent on policing.