Hamilton Police to explore collecting race data in street stops

Hamilton Police said Monday they will explore two new initiatives aimed at monitoring policing activities for possible racial bias.

Changes among several measures called for by anti-racism advocates

Attendees carried homemade signs on Dec. 1's "Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter" march through downtown Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Hamilton Police said Monday they will explore two new initiatives aimed at monitoring policing activities for possible racial bias.

The initiatives are focused on the practice of so-called "street safety checks" where police ask questions of people who may not be accused of a crime and collect and store personal information about them. 

The service's community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson told CBC Hamilton the police board will discuss at an upcoming meeting whether to formally record race-based information in those stops as a way to measure whether there is evidence of racial profiling.

Secondly, it will consider issuing "receipts" to people stopped, questioned and who have provided ID, so they have a record of the interaction. 

The potential changes are among several called for by anti-racism advocates as part of a wide-ranging meeting addressing racial issues with Chief Glenn De Caire last month. It's not clear if the police were already working on them before the meeting with the advocates. 

"When we go shopping, they give us receipts. It builds more trust," said Ismael Traore, a sociologist at McMaster University who helped organize a march in December called "Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter."  

Hamilton Police have acknowledged they ask questions and for identification from pedestrians, sometimes collecting and recording that information even when that person isn't part of a crime investigation. Sometimes that data includes "descriptors."

In Toronto, the practice of stopping and asking for identification even when someone is not accused of a crime — and then recording that information on a contact card, or "carding" — has proven controversial. The inclusion of racial details have led to analyses showing the practice disproportionately affects visible minorities.

Advocates including Traore called for the receipts to help defuse fears about police interactions in the community.

Traore said the receipts are a "paper trail" that could help build trust and provide ways to contact police or to file a complaint.

"We want receipts in order for us ourselves, as citizens, to have records of our encounters with police as a natural part of that interaction," he said. "There's probably an immigrant grandma who doesn't know what's going on. [With receipts,] she will have that record."

It's not a simple solution. Requiring police to issue receipts was tried in Toronto as that city grappled with controversy over its "carding" policy last year, and the incidence of carding dropped sharply. But a police board study found the officers continued the interactions without recording them. 

"The Hamilton Police is open to examining how we can best facilitate this process of providing receipts" related to the "written information officers may record in an interaction with community members on the street," said Sandra Wilson, community relations coordinator for the Hamilton Police Service.

Wilson, who also attended the meeting with the chief and anti-racism advocates, said that examination will take place sometime in 2015. 

Establishing a baseline for measuring racial profiling

The police also say they will discuss whether to institutionalize the collection of race-based identification of encounters. That could allow the service to monitor and assess their records to measure the extent to which police interactions disproportionately target visible minorities. 

De Caire told advocates he is open to talking about that with the police services board and the community. 

Wilson said that discussion will happen at an upcoming police services board meeting. She said she didn't have a specific date to announce for that meeting. 

Traore said the discussion should go beyond the police services board. 

"This ought to be opened up to the community," Traore said. "[The Hamilton police services board] should not always be the first, nor the final, space where matters (are decided) about how the Hamilton Police should proceed." 

Police records may include what they call "descriptors" of individuals questioned by the police. But the police service has not institutionally required race-based data be kept in their records, Traore said. 

Traore was one of a handful of local anti-racism advocates who met with De Caire and Wilson recently, and De Caire told the group that, he said.

Traore urged the chief at that meeting to start collecting the data "ASAP" to provide a baseline for measuring the extent to which police racial profiling exists in Hamilton exists.

"The fact that they do not have this already in place is indicative of a service that only gives piecemeal or reluctant attention to the matters of racism and bias," Traore said. 

In an attempt to further educate the public about citizen rights when stopped by police, Hamilton Police will update an app and brochure with more of that information in the next two weeks, Wilson said. 

Wilson said the interactions with community members on the street should not be construed as "the random stopping and collecting of information from our citizens." 

"We do not support, facilitate or enable through our policies and procedures any practice that does not lend itself to the safety and security of our citizens balanced with fairness, equity and a respect for human rights," she said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


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