INDEPTH: RACIAL PROFILING
Frequently asked questions
CBC News Online | May 26, 2005
It happens all the time. A police officer pulls over a car for a "routine" stop, or a customs officer at an airport or border crossing targets someone for a secondary examination. Usually nothing untoward is found and the person continues on their journey.
Does racial profiling occur?
But often, when the person singled out is a member of a minority ethnic group, they're left with the feeling that there was nothing random about the closer look – that they were stopped or subjected to extra scrutiny just because of their race or ethnicity.
Some black Canadians have a name for the practice. They say they're frequently pulled over for no other reason than being guilty of "DWB" – driving while black.
It's an ugly charge. In a country that prides itself as being a beacon for immigrants and one that celebrates its rich cultural mosaic, the idea that authorities would use the simple visibility of certain minorities as an investigative tool smacks of racism.
Several high-profile media articles have kept the issue very much in the public eye. But it isn't just the news stories. Anecdotal evidence and many surveys in ethnic communities have revealed a deeply-held perception that members of some racial groups are singled out for special attention from authorities.
While police forces routinely deny they practise racial profiling, critics say there's evidence that support its existence. The critics also have their critics, who say the evidence is still unclear.
What is racial profiling?
Racial profiling is usually defined in a law enforcement context. One study published in the Canadian Review of Policing Research defined it as "a racial disparity in police stop and search practices, customs searches at airports and border-crossings, in police patrols in minority neighbourhoods and in undercover activities or sting operations which target particular ethnic groups."
The Ontario Human Rights Commission took a broader approach, defining it as "any action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin rather than on reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment."
The OHRC gives some non-police-related examples of what it considers racial profiling:
Racial profiling is usually defined in a law enforcement context.
Accusations of differential treatment arise in areas where authorities can exercise their discretion. If police stopped every car, or if customs officers directed everyone for follow-up scrutiny, there would be no talk of racial profiling. But when that discretion is exercised, members of many minority groups feel that they come out with the short end of the baton – that they somehow always have to prove their innocence.
- School officials suspend a Latino child for violating the school's zero tolerance policy while a white child's behaviour is excused as being normal child's play.
An employer insists on stricter security clearance for a Muslim employee after the Sept. 11 attacks.
- A bar refuses to serve aboriginal customers because of a belief they will get drunk and rowdy.
Why is there such opposition to the idea that racial profiling exists?
Racial profiling is based on the assumption that members of certain ethnic groups are disproportionately more likely to be involved in certain criminal activities. If this practice is widely entrenched or officially sanctioned, it also follows that members of non-targeted groups can also expect less police scrutiny.
Since police forces rely on the co-operation of every segment of society, it's not surprising that accusations of any kind of bias are vigorously denied. Police chiefs say their forces try to weed out racists and can often point to disciplinary action or firings related to racist behaviour. But critics say racial profiling is often more subtle and therefore difficult to monitor. Formal stats are often hard to come by and can be open to alternate interpretations.
And some people worry that the collection and publication of any race-based data will simply reinforce racial prejudices.
What's the statistical evidence that racial profiling exists?
Since anecdotal evidence appears to not be taken that seriously, the search for more concrete evidence of racial profiling inevitably leads to statistics compiled by police forces themselves. But most police forces in North America don't collect race-based data on such things as traffic stops. That's why a series of articles published in 2002 in the Toronto Star caused such a sensation. The articles were based on stats collected by the police.
Analysis of those figures by Star reporters suggested that blacks in Toronto were over-represented in certain offence categories like drug possession and in what were called "out-of-sight" traffic violations, such as driving without a licence. The analysis also suggested that black suspects were more likely to be held in custody for a bail hearing, while white suspects #8211; facing similar charges – were more likely to be released at the scene.
The Toronto Police Service commissioned its own report that called the Star's methodology and interpretations "junk science," although that report, too, attracted methodological criticisms.
A study of police statistics in Kingston, Ont., released in May 2005 found that young black and aboriginal men were more likely to be stopped than other groups. The data showed that police in the predominantly white city were 3.7 times more likely to stop a black as a Caucasian, and 1.4 times more likely to stop an aboriginal person than a white.
Kingston police stop a disproportionate number of young black and aboriginal men, according to a racial profiling study.
Many other studies in the United States and Britain suggest that racial profiling does exist. In England, police routinely record the racial background of everyone stopped and searched by police. Stats from 1997-98 found that black people were stopped and searched at a rate of 142 per 1,000. Whites were stopped and searched at a rate of just 19 per 1,000.
Several field studies in Canada have also uncovered evidence that some minority groups, especially black youth, are far more likely to report "involuntary police contact," as one researcher called it, than either whites or Asians.
The Association of Black Law Enforcers, an organization that represents black and minority police and law enforcement officers in Canada, says racial profiling exists.
Is there debate over what the statistics show?
Those on both sides of the question say there are problems with taking the figures on such a complex issue at face value. What does it mean when half the inmates in a provincial jail are aboriginal when they represent only 10 per cent of the community's population? Are aboriginal Canadians committing more crimes or are police simply spending more time in the aboriginal community?
Are the courts and prosecutors more likely to drop charges against white offenders or agree to a plea bargain that keeps whites out of jail? Is it simply a case of whites being rich enough to afford better lawyers than aboriginals and blacks?
Some point out that it's not surprising that certain ethnics groups are over-represented in arrest statistics if their community is subject to much greater police scrutiny. The question is why. Are members of a certain community more targeted because of a belief they're more likely to have done something wrong? Or does the belief that a certain group harbours more lawbreakers merely become a self-fulfilling prophecy because police then target the group for extra scrutiny?
Some argue that all the debate over whether racial profiling exists is missing the point. They say if a huge portion of an ethnic group believes it exists, then that by definition amounts to a serious problem that must be addressed.
University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley wrote that "being stopped and searched by the police … seems to be experienced by black people as evidence that race still matters in Canadian society. That no matter how well you behave, how hard you try, being black means that you will always be considered one of the ‘usual suspects.'"
Wortley argues for more research and more data collection by police forces, saying the refusal to deal with it will "ensure that the issue of racial discrimination continues to haunt law enforcement agencies for decades to come."