Yunis Mohamed rallied his friends to join him Thursday night for a rare opportunity to have a say in how police interact with Ottawa's ethnic and racial minority communities.
"Because if we don't do anything today this will continue for our children," Mohamed said.
He and his friends were among the 100 people who signed up to take part in the discussion, which was held at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre on Coventry Road.
Organized by the Ottawa Police Service, the agenda included a deeper look at the findings of a study examining police traffic stops, which was released in October. It found that Middle Eastern and black drivers — particularly young men — were being stopped at a disproportionately high rate.
"The data presented really disturbed me, and hopefully OPS does something about it," Mohamed said.
Report recommended consultation
Thursday night's meeting was a recommendation from that report, which called for "consultation with stakeholder groups, race and ethnic communities and the public."
"It has become more than a project about race-based data collection," Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau told the group.
"It has created an important dialogue about racial profiling and biased policing," he continued, adding that the force took on the project to respond to questions and concerns "that we couldn't ignore."
Researchers from York University who conducted the study were also on hand to give details.
Police officers recorded the perceived race of drivers during traffic stops as part of a settlement agreement between the Ottawa Police Services Board and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The study examined the relationship between race, sex, age and traffic stops.
Middle Eastern, black men stopped more often
Among more than 80,000 traffic stops made between June 2013 and June 2015, the report found Middle Eastern men were stopped 3.3 times more than what you would expect, based on population.
Drivers identified as black by police were stopped 2.3 times more than you would expect.
Mohamed, a software engineer in Ottawa, said he has had many positive interactions with police, including an officer who gave his car a boost. But the bad interactions are enduring, including a recent stop when he says he was asked if there were drugs in the car.
"He didn't ask my name, or why I was being pulled over," Mohamed said.
In an interview after his speech, Bordeleau said the police force understands that perception of bias has to be addressed.
"The data is one thing," said Bordeleau, "but what we found is there's value in actually sitting down and having a discussion with the community on the issues of race, of biased policing and how can we work better."
Other police forces should take note, researchers say
The researchers, meanwhile, said it was the first time this kind of comprehensive data on race has been collected by a Canadian police force, but agrees it's about more than that.
"The purpose of doing a race data collection like this is forward-looking," explained Lesley Jacobs.
"It really is, how can we better realize racial equity around policing and the Ottawa Police Service? We're looking for them to show that they recognize the pioneering opportunity for them to serve the entire community."
Co-author Lorne Foster said this exercise of using data to bring about a change in policing will be watched closely by other services.
"I do believe that they should watch," said Foster, "and I do believe that this is a pioneering exercise that is going to be helpful to police services and communities across this country."
The consultations are part of a six-month "engagement plan" to develop steps toward what police call "bias-neutral policing."
A report on the solutions discussed and presented at the meeting will be made public by the new year. A second meeting will take place on Feb. 28.