Posted on August 18, 2015

A Thorny History of Race-Based Statistics

Rosie DiManno, The Star, August 17, 2015

What goes around comes around. But sometimes it returns upside-down.

When white is black. And black has a target on its back.

Twenty-six years ago, a staff inspector by the name of Julian Fantino–future Toronto police chief–sat in a small committee room and delivered a slew of explosive race-based crime statistics focused on the Jane-Finch neighbourhood.

Fantino, then head of 31 Division, told North York’s committee on community, race and ethnic relations that, while blacks made up 6 per cent of the Jane-Finch population, they accounted for 82 per cent of robberies and muggings, 55 per cent of purse-snatchings and 51 per cent of drug offences in the previous year.

The Star’s Royson James was apparently the only reporter present. He duly filed a story that appeared on the next day’s front page. All hell broke loose.

Police in Ontario were forbidden to compile race-based crime statistics. Solicitor-General Joan Smith, responsible for law enforcement in the province, castigated Fantino for collecting and releasing data that “accomplishes nothing useful.” Black activist groups and social agencies condemned Fantino for fueling existing prejudices. Police chief Jack Marks insisted the force did not keep race stats.

Fantino maintained the data had been collected at the request of the aforementioned committee. Its chairman disputed the claim.

That scandal clung to Fantino for the duration of his cop career and launched decades of angst-ridden discussion of when it might be justifiable to collate or analyze race-based data, particularly in a policing context.

The short answer: Never.

I thought that was the wrong answer then, the easy cop-out. Information is power. We need to know facts, interpret complex realities, evaluate trends. And try to fix the problem.

Fantino’s statistics exacerbated tensions and provided neither context nor nuance. For one thing, people of colour–as subsequent Star investigations showed–are over-policed, disproportionately arrested and excessively convicted or pleaded-out by lazy lawyers.

Fast forward to Monday’s page-one story by the Star’s Wendy Gillis about the black hole of information surrounding visible minorities killed by Toronto cops. No such thing. Black males might get carded excessively, but, nope, the information you’re seeking doesn’t exist.

The provincial police watchdog, the Ministry of Community and Correctional Services, Toronto Police Service, not even Statistics Canada will touch the stuff. An attempt by the Star to match known fatal confrontations with contemporaneous media reports left too many gaps, because race of the victims wasn’t included in those stories. And that, I’m certain, harks back to an era when the Star vigilantly eliminated race details from news coverage.

The Star’s policy on fairness holds that, generally, “no reference, direct or indirect, should be made to a person’s race, colour or religion unless it is pertinent to the story.” Exceptions can be made in the case of a missing person or criminal suspect at large, “as part of a description that provides as many details as possible.” Further: “At times, a group may make race a public issue. If a person is shot by police while committing a crime, for example, the group may claim that the shooting was racially motivated. In such cases, the person’s race is relevant to the news.”

In my view, all details are pertinent, or at least they provide a sharper picture.

But I understand the caution.

The upshot, however, is that we’re left with a dearth of knowledge. And now some of the very people who most passionately demanded the abandonment of race statistics decades ago–because of the clear harm caused–are advocating for that information to be collected and accessible.

Now it matters in a reverse context: Blacks killed by Toronto cops. How many? Who? Why? And so it’s the cops who dread disclosure. Yet those are facts we damn well should know.

We’ve put ourselves into a moral and intellectual bind. The reason: We don’t trust facts. More crucially, we don’t trust how facts can be manipulated. Or we don’t trust the potential for what’s known in court as an adverse inference–the reason why judges often kick out evidence deemed highly prejudicial with little probative value.

Surely, in a matter of such gravity–minorities killed in interactions with police–we can discard the extremes of compulsory blinkering. I’d say drop them entirely and live with the consequences. Because we can’t control how information will be computed by another person’s brain–whether they’ll misunderstand, whether they’ll take offense where none was intended, whether they’ll hurl accusations of racism (or sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.)–we tread delicately, self-censoriously. So we end up with this: institutional timidity.

Among the numerous task forces into Toronto police and race relations was an audit released way back in 1992, which included the following recommendation: That the Toronto Police Services Board “reconsider its policy as to maintaining statistics which identify race and consider a policy which permits the maintenance of such statistics for the purpose of measuring or evaluating police activity… A civilian function should be created to maintain, compile and analyze such data. Statistics should be kept at a level of detail which allows for valid statistical conclusion.’’

The board rejected it.

A further recommendation suggested a formula for addressing racial subtexts–in policing, not the criminal constituency: “A series of indicators be developed using a statistical base to evaluate the level of bias, if any, in policing activities for the Force as a whole as well as to provide internal comparisons within the Force between differing operating units.’’

In essence, the audit pleaded for profiling–of police.

But profiling is such a dirty word. Just like “race-based” statistics. Except when they’re not.