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Race-based police study begins in Ottawa

The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) began its Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project today, under which officers will, “by their observation only,” record the race – or their perception of the race – of a driver at all traffic stops.

The project is the largest of its kind in Canada and stems from a May 2012 settlement agreement between the Ottawa Police Services Board and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) following a complaint by Chad Aiken, an African-Canadian.

Aiken, a teenager at the time, stated that he was pulled over by police for being black. While the OHRC and the Ottawa Police assert that the race-based data collection project will help to “ensure bias-free policing,” there are many dissenting voices both within and outside of Ottawa’s ethnic communities. Many question the manner in which the project is being conducted, as well as its effectiveness in the long run.

Aiken, and other ethnic minorities in the community disagree with the length of the study (limited to two years), as well as its scope. The project focuses solely on traffic (vehicular) stops, and not other possible points of engagement between police officers and citizens, such as pedestrian stops, and so could fail to address the myriad ways in which citizens may be targeted due to their race.

Scot Wortley, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Toronto, concurs with the views expressed by Aiken and other critics of the project. Wortley, who conducted Canada’s first study on perception of race by police when pulling people over, in Kingston, in 2005, has also stated that the settlement and the resulting project are “police-friendly”.

In a June 2, 2013 interview with the Ottawa Citizen’s Don Butler, Wortley expresses, among other issues, concern with the fact that the Ottawa Police has control over how the study is conducted.

Sulaimon Giwa, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Work, at York University, also questions the restricted scope of the study and the “self-reporting” by police that will be at the heart of the data.While Giwa states that the “race data collection project has the promise of shining light on an issue that has long plagued the relationship between the [OPS] and members of racialized communities in Ottawa,” he believes that limiting the project to traffic stops “is a major oversight.”

Giwa notes that current research demonstrates “differences between pedestrian and traffic stops,” with pedestrian stops being “far-reaching” in impact. Omission of pedestrian police stops, according to Giwa, “overlook[s] the weight of evidence available to support a more comprehensive investigation.” Giwa also believes that restricting the data collection period to the two-year timeframe, rather than implementing an indefinite initiative,  places serious limitations on the project  and “raise[s] the question of accountability” on the part of the police.

The Ottawa Police could be “a leader on this issue and [could] demonstrate its long-term commitment to ethical policing practices.” For Giwa, “self-reporting” is “problematic on many levels” as there is “potential for police to misrepresent or falsify the race of drivers” to avoid accusations of racial bias.

While the Ottawa Police believes that the race data collection project will help to combat racial profiling, critics like Giwa question the privileging of race data collection by police as the “method  of inquiry” over the stories told to the police and the general public by racialized communities. Although racialized communities have already brought attention to the issue, it seems that their accounts are not seen as legitimate.

Further, Giwa notes that while the police force “points out that it is the first police service in Canada to have a racial profiling policy, [and] one that is the most comprehensive in the developed world […] it fails to stipulate what, if any, disciplinary or remedial action would be taken against an officer found to have engaged in racial profiling.”

Ultimately, the Ottawa Police project will only be seen as effective to racialized communities if the police force is seen to be accountable for its actions. Until that happens, police-minority relations may see little to no improvement at all.

Read it on New Canadian Media.