Posted on July 24, 2009

Police Condemned for Profiling of Letter Carrier

Rick Eglinton, Toronto Star, July 23, 2009

Ron Phipps admits he was criss-crossing Vernham Ave. the day he was stopped by police in the Bridle Path.

He was also wearing a Canada Post coat and carrying two mailbags while filling in for the regular letter carrier.

Toronto Police Const. Michael Shaw pointed that out to a new constable he was training as soon as they turned into the street. Shaw was also suspicious about Phipps, who is black, speaking to a homeowner but not delivering her any mail.

They also had instructions to investigate cut phone lines and look for suspects described as male, white and eastern European who were seen in a car.

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has ruled that by stopping Phipps on March 9, 2005, questioning him, trailing him and asking a white letter carrier to verify his identity, Shaw was guilty of racial profiling.

The fact that Phipps “was an African-Canadian in an affluent neighbourhood was a factor, a significant factor, and probably the predominant factor, whether consciously or unconsciously, in Const. Shaw’s actions,” adjudicator Kaye Joachim wrote in her decision last month.

At the hearing, Shaw contended each of Phipps’ actions was suspicious, despite his uniform.

Joachim batted each one down.

“Letter carriers take vacation, retire and/or switch routes” so seeing a man with a mailbag he didn’t know doesn’t explain Shaw’s suspicions, Joachim wrote.

“I do not accept Const. Shaw’s evidence that the applicant was crossing the street back and forth in an unusual fashion. Const. Shaw was well aware that letter carriers do not stop at every house. It was not unusual to misdeliver mail and to go back and try to retrieve it.

“The fact that it was an African-Canadian male without a vehicle that attracted Const. Shaw’s attention is what is unusual,” wrote Joachim.

The ruling is just the first half of the case that started that chilly morning in March 2005.

The tribunal on Sept. 14 will hear the same accusations against the Toronto Police Services Board and Chief Bill Blair.

“This was always broader than Const. Shaw,” Phipps said yesterday from his Thornhill residence.

“I know there is more than one Const. Shaw in the world.”

This case is important, said law professor David Tanovich, because it is the second clear Ontario human rights tribunal ruling of racial profiling against police.

The first was against Peel Regional Police in 2007. Tanovich is academic director of the Law Enforcement Accountability Project at the University of Windsor.

“Most cases are not about overt racism. They’re about stereotyping. I think the Bridle Path contributed. One of the assumptions is that this person is out of place,” he said.

“The more positive findings we get, the greater focus on training and proper directives. Very few of these cases ever make their way to court.”

Since the incident, Phipps said he has trouble sleeping and has lost weight, affecting his other job as a personal trainer. Medication to help him sleep has damaged his eyesight. He is “teased mercilessly” by co-workers, and his wife and parents fear repercussions from the police.

Phipps, 44, is asking for a financial award in the case; he won’t say how much. He also wants the police to pair officers with partners “of a different race or culture” to teach them to “cope with difference.”

Shaw is on “prolonged leave” from 33 Division, police said yesterday.

Phipps immigrated to Toronto from Jamaica as a child with his parents and seven brothers and sisters.

“I had no idea what racism was until I came to Canada.”

In 1975, he was with a group of friends between 10 and 14 years old who stopped a police officer to ask directions, he said. Their response: “Do you pickaninnies think this is a cab?”

His own son is now 14. “I would like to be able to say, ‘If you have trouble, you can turn to a police officer.’ But I can’t say that.”