Are the Ottawa Police Racist?

Are the Ottawa police racist?

The simple answer is yes – a conclusion supported by a new study: Race Data and Traffic Stop in Ottawa.

The study, authored by a highly respected research team from York University, represents the largest race-based data collection in Canadian history. And its findings are damning but not unexpected for a police force that has been embroiled in racial controversy.

The researchers examined 81,902 traffic stops between 2013 and 2015 and found that visible minorities were stopped by the police at a disproportionate rate compared to white drivers. Middle Easterners and Black drivers who each represent about 4% of the driving population were stopped 12.3% and 8.8% of the time.  In simple terms a driver of Middle Eastern decent is 3.3 times more likely than a white driver to be stopped by the police and black driver is 2.3 times more likely to be pulled and detained by the police.

But we knew this already. Or at least we should have.  The federal government has acknowledged, for example, that black men are disproportionately charged for minor marijuana offences and study after study has shown that visible minorities are more likely to carded - stopped by the police while simply walking the streets. 

So why should driving be any different?

Before we go on let’s take down the straw man. 

Not all police officers are card-carrying Klan members. The vast majority of police officers are not racists. Although some are – after all it was just last month that disgraced Ottawa police Sargent Chris Hrnchiar posted racists Facebook comments in the wake of the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook.

The point of the visible minority traffic study was not to discover if a gang of racist officers was harassing minorities for kicks and giggles. Life is more complicated that that. In the real world villains seldom twirl their mustaches and laugh menacingly. The real point of the study – as was the case with carding and marijuana arrests – is to determine whether the actions of the police are guided by systemic racism.

Systemic racism is insidious and nefarious because it is hard to identify. Systemic racism is given life by our unconscious biases, our privilege, our irrational unacknowledged fears, and the very histories of our institutions.

In the case of traffic stops, however, the study’s data makes a pretty troubling case for the presence and prevalence of systemic racism in the police force.

And the response from the police to the alarming data is even more troubling.

Ottawa’s police chief Charles Bordeleau was quick to minimize any problems and asserted that the report did not find evidence of racial profiling. Except it did nothing to disprove it - sort of the opposite. The York University research team was clear that the huge disparity in traffic stops was “consistent” with a finding of racial profiling.

Bordeleau went on to say that there was no racial profiling because although minorities were pulled over more often than white drivers they were ticketed at the same rates. Bordeleau either has his systemic blinders on or is being intentionally obtuse about the data.

So let’s dig deeper.

What the study actually found was that when minorities were stopped by police, they “were more likely to face no further police actions when compared with the White group”. So minorities are pulled over more but charged less frequently than white drivers.

To put it in simple terms for Bordeleau - his police force stopped, detained, and questioned visible minorities for no reason way more frequently than it did white drivers.

This is made clear in the report, that is if Bordeleau even bothered to read it. The damning finding could not have been any plainer: “there was a greater propensity that [Indigenous, Black and Middle Eastern] racialized minority groups were traffic-stopped for nothing...”

That troubling finding should be cause for alarm. Stopping a disproportionate number of minorities for no reason is not proof that the Ottawa police force is not acting in a racist manner - exactly the opposite.

The Ontario Human Right’s Commission echoed the report’s findings, saying: “The significant disproportion in traffic stops is consistent with racial profiling and sends a strong message that work against racial discrimination must now translate into action and accountability.”

And the response from the police? Matt Skof president of the Ottawa Police Association – a man who represents hundreds of Ottawa police officers - described the concerns of Ontario Human Rights Commission as those of a ‘petulant child’.

Skof went on to say that nothing in report was surprising. On this we agree. But when asked how the police association would respond to the study Skof had no answer – well he did – “business as usual”.

Skof’s comments show where the roots of the problem lie – with people like him.

Ottawa’s police chief misinterpreted and misrepresented the study’s data.

Jim Watson, Ottawa’s usually vocal mayor, has been silent on the issue. But maybe that is to be expected - after all Watson described Sargent Chris Hrnchiar obviously racist comments about Indigenous Canadian’s as merely “bordering on racism”.

The systemic racism problem in Ottawa’s police force does not fall at the feet of individual officers – they are by and large good honourable people working in a broken system – but at the feet of those in power who deny its existence - people like Skof, Bordeleau, and Watson.

The problem is with our civic leaders. Just like Skof they seem to be content with business as usual.

So the more complicated answer is: Ottawa’s police officers are only very rarely racist but the institution certainly is.