Police ponder how best to collect race data
TheStar.com – GTA
February 15, 2010. Jim Rankin
Toronto police are considering making it mandatory for officers to note the race and ethnicity of people they stop in an effort to probe for patterns of potential bias – but there is no agreement on how best to go about it.
The police service, its board and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have been engaged in a partnership that may set the bar for police services and institutions across Canada in terms of equity within the service and better serving the public.
Data collection is one of the few sticking points.
The human rights commission believes the police and the community would benefit from the collection and analysis of such data – a common practice in many U.S. states and nationally mandated in the United Kingdom.
Following a 2002 Star series on race, policing and crime in Toronto, which showed black people in certain circumstances were treated more harshly, a number of groups, including the human rights commission, called on police to collect and analyze data on every interaction with police.
“Where anecdotal evidence of racial profiling exists, the organization involved should collect data for the purpose of monitoring its occurrence and to identify measures to combat it,” the commission recommended in its 2003 report, Paying the Price: The Human Cost of Racial Profiling.
The Star obtained updated arrest and charge data, as well as a database that tracks who police choose to document in mostly non-criminal encounters, in a freedom of information request spanning nearly seven years.
Between 2003 and 2008, Toronto police filled out 1.7 million contact cards. Police use the card data to link people and find witnesses and suspects in later crimes. They don’t fill out a card on every contact.
A Star analysis found black people are three times more likely to be documented than white.
An analysis of the updated arrest and charge data shows little change since 2002.
Black people arrested for drug possession are still more likely to be held for bail, and black motorists continue to be disproportionately ticketed for certain “out-of-sight” driving offences.
Black people are also charged with violent crime at a higher rate than any other group (see graphic).
Police feel there is no need for mandatory data collection and analysis because they have acknowledged bias is a factor in police decisions and are taking steps to deal with the problem.
Police services board chair Alok Mukherjee described the data debate as “one of the most important issues that we are grappling with” and “pretty intense.”
“Animated,” is how police Chief Bill Blair put it. “I have to tell you that we are exploring it.”
The human rights commission does not have the authority to order the police to do anything.
Blair has said some of the disparity noted in the Star analysis is likely due to bias, but just how much is difficult to determine.
An issue often raised in the use of traffic stop data to gauge for racial bias is external benchmarking. For example, using residential population demographics to suggest inequity in who is stopped is problematic because it does not reflect who drives, or who drives where.
Researchers with RAND, a non-profit U.S. research organization, found looking at what happens after a stop may be more telling.
A study of Oakland, Calif., police stops found black motorists were more often subject to pat-down searches and faced longer stops.
Internal benchmarking is another means to identify potentially biased behaviour. It works like this: group together the traffic stop data of officers with similar duties in the same geographic area, and look for unusual racial patterns in who individual officers stop and frisk.
Lorie Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, recently spoke to the Toronto police human rights charter group. Her work includes creating a police curriculum for controlling implicit bias or, as author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell put it, a “racial blink” most human beings have that can lead to good and bad automatic decisions.
Fridell said the steps Toronto police are taking puts them “heads and shoulders” above others, but that first step – acknowledging bias is a problem – was the bravest.
“It has to be stated carefully because people in the police department have been hearing for certainly the last decade and certainly for decades before, that racially biased policing is about bad people, racist people in policing,” she said.
“When they hear it from their chief, some are going to feel like they’ve just been thrown under the bus.
“It’s important that the chief articulate and be clear, that `There are well-meaning people, the humans that I hire, that I need to work with proactively to ensure fair and impartial policing.'”
Since 1994, the number of visible minority officers on the service has tripled, and today stands at 19 per cent. Each new graduating class looks a lot like Toronto does.
There are now two visible minority deputy chiefs, one of whom is regarded by some as a future chief.
Each new recruit is vetted, Blair said. “We do some aptitude testing, psychological testing to make sure that we have good people coming in the door.”
That is difficult, Fridell said. “You need to hire people who can police in an unbiased fashion,” she said.
“You’ll notice I didn’t say unbiased people, because the pool would be reduced to zero.
“The idea for me would be to hire people who are willing to reflect on our own human biases, and implement interventions to thwart the impact of these biases on their behaviour.”
Fridell said police services can benefit from race data collection, but it can be expensive and prove nothing if done poorly.
Given a choice between data collection and training, she would choose state-of-the art programs.
If a service can afford it, Fridell said the simple act of requiring officers to document the racial and ethnic background of who they stop, every time, will likely cause officers to think about the reasons for the stop, and contemplate whether one of them is a bad decision based on a racial blink.
Windsor law professor David Tanovich, who has written a book on racial profiling in Canadian policing, lauds what Toronto has done. “It is – no hesitation to say it – one of the most progressive forces in North America,” said Tanovich, who founded the Law Enforcement Accountability Project.
The University of Windsor law faculty program offers to review police service policies and offer training to reduce biased policing.
That said, Tanovich is critical of the police practice of documenting citizens in mostly non-criminal encounters, and entering their personal detail into a database for future investigative purposes.
Tanovich sees the reluctance by Toronto police to engage in a data collection project as “really troubling, when in fact they are doing it internally, with no oversight and that’s a serious concern.”
Technically, Toronto police are not permitted to do what the Star has done with the service’s own data, and if it were decided today to study police stops for bias, the service could not.
A 1989 policy forbids police from analyzing and reporting race-based statistics. It was put in place over fears of stigmatizing communities.
Toronto police board chair Mukherjee is reviewing the service’s policy to at least make it permissible to look, should it be decided the service wants to go there.
For the rest of the series, including interactive maps, a video and a data download, go to thestar.com/racematters.
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