Nova Scotia's human rights watchdog has hired a leading Canadian expert from Ontario to study how Halifax police use street checks.

Halifax police say street checks are used to record suspicious activity in public, sometimes by stopping and questioning a member of the public. Other times, street checks involve making observations at a distance.

Using street check data provided by police, CBC News calculated last January that black Haligonians are 3.1 times more likely to be street checked than white people in the city.

Arab and West Asian people are 1.9 times more likely to be stopped than white people.

The head of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, Christine Hanson, has hired criminologist Scot Wortley to address allegations of racial profiling in the context of police street checks.

Wortley was involved in a pioneering study of street checks in Kingston, Ont., in 2005 that showed black people were 3.7 times more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts. He has a doctorate in sociology and has been a professor at the centre for criminology at University of Toronto since 1996.

'Groundbreaking endeavour'

Street check issues are not unique to Halifax, but are debated across Canada and the U.S. as "one of the most contentious, controversial issues in law enforcement," Wortley told the police board Monday.

He said his analysis will be "a groundbreaking endeavour" in Canada, but cautioned that results won't come quickly.

street checks nova scotia rcmp and halifax regional police

"[It is] bringing together two very different, polarized views, addressing views from law enforcement, on the one side, who may feel indignant and defensive with respect to allegations of racial bias," he said, "and the perspective of some leading community members who feel that racial bias dominates all interactions."

The criminologist will first review existing studies of police checks in other Canadian and American police departments. Wortley said it will take weeks to explore the existing street check data and see how it could be linked to other police records and demographic information.

"We've got to find a way of exploring the data and providing objective concrete information on what's happening out there," he said. "Creating policies that can help reduce racism in society and racial profiling within law enforcement, but also evaluating the effectiveness of those policies."

'Very helpful'

"There are police officers who view the information that they've put into the data banks as being something that is very optimal and very helpful," Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais said Monday.

Wortley said he hopes to hold some form of public meetings to collect views from the community. A wide public survey about attitudes to police would be helpful, Wortley said, but perhaps not possible due to budget constraints.

Criminologist Scot Wortley

Criminologist Scot Wortley was involved in a pioneering study of street checks in Kingston, Ont., in 2005. (Pam Berman/CBC)

Police board commissioner Tony Mancini said he's concerned to hear that funding could limit the scope of Wortley's study.

Report, recommendations coming

Board commissioner Carlos Beals, also an anti-poverty activist and youth worker, said he hopes the study will address concerns on all side.

"Making sure that everyone in the city is being treated fairly, and that they are perceived to be treated fairly," he said.

A lifelong resident of North Dartmouth, Beals has had experience with police checks.

"I think just being an African-Nova Scotian male in this city, that my interactions with police have not been the best," he said. "Given my current work, I don't get pulled over on a daily basis, or I don't have that much interaction with police. But that's not to say that folks who live in these communities aren't having different experiences than I have."

Chief Jean-Michel Blais

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais has said he expects new policies on street checks to be in place this fall. (Pam Berman/CBC)

Wortley said his recommendations could include a nuanced analysis of how street checks affect Haligonians of various racial backgrounds.

He also said it's important to talk to police about how street checks contribute to public safety.

Wortley's final report will include recommendations that will balance how street checks affect quality of life for minorities in Halifax with public safety issues, he said.

Chief Blais has said he expects new policies on street checks to be in place this fall.

With files from The Canadian Press