The criminals among us

TheStar.com – SpecialSections – The criminals among us: Not as many lawbreakers as Canadians believe are members of visible minorities, survey shows
July 21, 2008.   Jim Rankin, Betsy Powell, Staff Reporters

On any given day in Canada, on any busy city bus, on any main street, take a look around. There are criminals among us – about 10 per cent of adults. Picture the 50 people on the bus, and ask yourself, which five are criminals?

Many Canadians identify the wrong people.

In a national survey, the Star asked Canadians how many people with a Canadian criminal record are visible minority, including aboriginals.

The average response: About one in three. The correct answer: One in six.

The real answer comes from a Star analysis of an RCMP database containing the criminal histories of 2.9 million people, obtained through a freedom of information request. It shows that the percentage of “non-whites” with a criminal record is 16.7 per cent – below 2006 Census data on the total percentage of visible minorities and aboriginal groups in Canada (20.0). The average response in the survey was 36.7 per cent.

Canadians’ perceptions were also off on what proportion of Canada’s population is visible minority and immigrant. Respondents guessed high on both counts, which might explain, in part, why misperceptions about criminals are as great as they are.

Canadian governments and police forces generally do not distribute race and crime statistics, partly out of a fear it will stigmatize communities and fuel racism. But the lack of information may be another reason why Canadians thought people with criminal records were disproportionately non-white.

“The interesting thing about the findings,” says University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, “is that under a situation where (race and crime information is not distributed) people still have the perception that minorities are more involved in crime, and in fact this perception is far worse than the reality. In many ways, your data show that this ban on these statistics has not protected minorities at all. In fact, it may have made it worse.”

Respondents were also off the mark on who has criminal records for certain offences, overestimating for non-white people on each of the crime categories measured in the data. (For more detail, see the adjoining graphic.)

Carol Tator and Frances Henry, researchers who have studied crime and media coverage and co-authored a book on racial profiling, argue that Canada presents itself as colour-blind and, hence, there is no need to look for racial differences in police practices and the justice system. Wortley believes there is another reason: “We don’t want to be scrutinized, that this is a form of accountability and that the data may make us look bad. … (There is) a feeling that these data could hurt the image of the justice system.”

In the wake of a 2002 Star investigative series on race and crime in Toronto, which used police arrest data to show blacks were treated more harshly than whites in certain circumstances, there was renewed talk in Canada of formally tracking the race of people stopped by police. But collecting race/crime data remains officially banned by the Toronto Police Board, despite support for it from many in Toronto’s black communities. A 2004 report commissioned by a coalition of African-Canadian groups urged the province to order police to better document who they stop.

“You cannot manage what you don’t measure,” Charles C. Smith, author of the report, said at the time.

The Star series prompted Kingston police Chief Bill Closs to examine police stops and searches in his city. The pilot study found that blacks were several times more likely than whites to be stopped. Closs called the data an “early warning system” and urged his colleagues to follow suit.

It’s believed no police force has.

“There is a risk that some of that data could be used inappropriately,” Toronto police Chief Bill Blair said in a recent interview.

The U.K. has been releasing annual race, crime and prison statistics – as have many U.S. police forces – since 1991, because the government believes that providing such statistics is an “essential step towards ensuring justice for all.”

According to the 2006 report, blacks were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites, 3 1/2 more likely to be arrested, and six times more likely to be in prison. “Disproportionality is a critical issue for the police service,” notes the report.

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Federal offender population by race: http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/460764#
These are self-reported as of April 8, 2007.

Wrong on race: http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/460764#
Survey shows that Canadians underestimate how many people have criminal records, while overestimating how many visible minorities are in the country and how many visible minorities have committed crimes.

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