Profiling racial profiling

At Toronto police headquarters, the response to evidence of racial profiling has changed dramatically. The angry denials of eight years ago have evolved into a clear recognition of the problem and a firm determination to fix it.

Unfortunately, that attitude hasn’t always percolated down to the street level, where visible minorities – especially blacks – are still being disproportionately singled out for special attention by police.

That’s the upshot of a recent investigative series done by a team of Star journalists led by reporter Jim Rankin. And it is a finding that should trouble anyone wanting more fair and effective policing in Canada’s largest city.

Through a freedom of information request that took almost seven years to yield results, the Star obtained data from 1.7 million “contact cards” filled out by Toronto police officers from 2003 to 2008. Kept for information purposes, these index cards, known as 208s, document the identity, age, gender, race, physical features and address of an individual, as well as known friends and associates.

It isn’t the same as a criminal record. But the filing of a 208 signals that the individual in question has, for one reason or another, caught the attention of police.

The Star’s investigation found that blacks were three times more likely to be stopped and documented in this way than whites. That holds true for all age levels and neighbourhoods. A higher rate of “carding” blacks was especially noticeable in more affluent, predominantly white sections of the city.

Reporters also updated statistics on arrests and charges that had formed the basis of the Star’s landmark 2002 series on race and policing. They found that blacks facing drug charges were still being detained for bail hearings more often than whites, and black motorists remained more likely to be ticketed than white drivers in the same circumstances.

When presented with these findings, and results from examining 208s, Chief Bill Blair didn’t dispute the analysis and accepted that racial bias is a likely factor in these patterns. That’s a major departure from eight years ago when the chief of the day (Julian Fantino) erupted with rage and denial of any systemic problem. The police force is now acting on a variety of fronts, including dramatically increased minority hiring. But more needs to be done.

Civil libertarians object to the entire contact card approach on grounds that tracking innocent people represents excessive monitoring by the state. That is a reasonable concern, and this practice needs re-evaluation.

As long as it continues, however, results from 208s and other police data should be analyzed for racial bias.

The police force isn’t allowed to do that now, under a 1989 policy that bans the department from crunching its numbers on the basis of race. That is outdated. A wide range of authorities, including the Ontario Human Rights Commission, have called for official analysis of such data with an eye toward tracing evidence of racial profiling.