Racial profiling still has no place here

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Thu Feb 11 2010.   John Sewell

In 2002 the Toronto Star published articles showing that if you were black you were treated more harshly by police in certain circumstances than whites and also more likely to be ticketed for certain traffic offences. This news was greeted with angry denials.

Police chief Julian Fantino, mayor Mel Lastman and others said there was no racial profiling, and that the Star‘s analysis was wrong. The Toronto Police Association sued the Star for $2.7 billion for libel, although the courts threw the case out. The Toronto Police Services Board passed resolutions saying racial profiling would not be tolerated and the Ontario Human Rights Commission stepped in to work with the police force.

Now the Star has analyzed data about who Toronto police stopped between 2003 and 2008, and the results are the same: black and brown youth are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped than white youth. Racial profiling continues apace.

Today, instead of denying that racial profiling occurs, the chief and other senior officers admit it happens, imply it’s normal, and go on to explain why the police practice of carding so many blacks is not something we should worry about. (Carding is the process of filling out a 208 card of information on any individual stopped. The Star analysis of those cards revealed a disparity in who is carded, which academics say is indicative of bias.)

One police explanation given for the benefit of this carding is that it provides a more rounded look at those stopped – who their friends are and where they were on a certain date, for instance. The police say they have used this information in several instances in the last six years to solve a crime.

This is the classic story of the police deciding that to provide more safety they need a dossier on everyone who could cause trouble, and the way they do it in Toronto shows they mean getting dossiers on young men with black and brown skins.

But the one lesson we should have learned from the 20th century is that we must fear any police force that compiles dossiers on any single group in society. The creation of these dossiers is always done with the best of intentions, as Chief Bill Blair claims, but history shows the information is often misused or misconstrued.

The other rationale given by the police is that it makes sense to stop more black and brown kids in neighbourhoods where there are shootings because they are the ones who are doing the shooting. When youths with those skin colours complain they don’t appreciate being stopped and questioned when they did nothing wrong, police imply that’s just the breaks of the game.

It’s the same rationale that politicians in the United States have used against Maher Arar, the Canadian they arrested and shipped off to Syria for torture: Arabs and those of the Islamic faith, they say, were responsible for destroying the twin towers in Manhattan, so it made sense for them to focus on and discriminate against that kind of person even if there was no evidence to do so apart from race. In Canada we have honoured Arar, but our police force seems not to have learned from his example.

We all want to stop black kids (and other kids) from committing violent and anti-social acts. Discriminating against them will never achieve this goal. As Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling point out so persuasively in their report “The Roots of Youth Violence,” we need to spend money on strengthening the lives of these children and of their families. These are not problems police can resolve.

Just imagine how alienated you would feel as a young adult if the police constantly discriminated against you, and police action said that you were not a person to be trusted. We need a police force that is willing to stop racial discrimination, not one that rationalizes racial profiling.

John Sewell is a former Toronto mayor.

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