Posted on February 15, 2012

Canadian Police Routinely Suppress Racial Data: Study

Douglas Quan, Canada, February 1, 2012

Many Canadian police agencies “actively suppress” racial data when delivering their annual crime reports to Ottawa — a trend that is both disturbing and growing, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, said the continued “whitewashing” of criminal data makes it virtually impossible for researchers to gauge whether police are dealing with racial and ethnic minority groups in an equitable manner.

“Community relationships are so important for policing. If you want to develop better relationships, show you’re working on issues these communities are concerned about,” said lead author Paul Millar, an assistant professor of criminology at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., in an interview. “Be accountable.”

Police agencies gave several reasons Wednesday for why they don’t collect or report racial characteristics of the people they come in contact with.

RCMP spokesman Sgt. Greg Cox said asking a victim or accused person to identify their race “may give rise to human rights and privacy concerns.”

Officers could also be put in the position of contravening the force’s “bias-free policing” policy, he said.

Acting Insp. Cathy Bell, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Provincial Police, said her force strives to be sensitive to all cultures and races and that collecting racial data is not seen as relevant to the force’s programs and operations.

The federal Department of Justice, however, has previously judged that such data collection could be helpful for policy development and statistical purposes.

The reluctance to collect and share the data may have more to do with public relations concerns, Millar said.

“They don’t want to be perceived to be racist, to be blunt,” he said.

The study notes that Canadian research has shown that black people are pulled over more often than other groups and that aboriginals are over-represented in prisons.

One possible explanation is that racial minorities are socially disadvantaged, putting them at greater risk of involvement in crime, the study says. But another possibility is systemic discrimination by police based on race.

In order to get to the bottom of why over-representation exists, there needs to be a systematic collection and reporting of racial data, the study says.

“Police services are mandated to provide equitable services. Without race-based data we cannot tell if this is being done or not,” said co-author Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a doctoral candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto, in an interview.

The study found that when police agencies report crime data to the Centre for Criminal Justice Statistics, the majority — about 80 per cent — do not release racial data in practice and about 20 per cent don’t do so as an official policy.

And when race is reported, it’s limited to aboriginals. While aboriginal is an important racial category, other categories — such as black — may be of greater interest in some areas, such as Toronto or Halifax, the authors write.

In November 2010, Toronto’s police services board passed a policy permitting the force to collect and report statistics related to race, ethnicity and other characteristics.

But Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said Wednesday the force’s position is that the collection of such data is not seen as beneficial or appropriate at this time.