A human rights complaint filed by three First Nations against the Thunder Bay police is raising questions about whether there is racism in the police service.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler said First Nations people have many concerns about their interactions with police.

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Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler said First Nations people have many concerns about their interactions with police. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"Just based on what we’ve been hearing about other incidents," Fiddler said at a news conference Sept. 17, where the complaint was made public, "especially from our young people who come to high school here in Thunder Bay."

A University of Toronto criminologist said there is a simple way to find out if there is systemic racism within a police service.

Racial profiling research creates tension

Scot Wortley conducted a study of the Kingston Police in 2005 at the request of the police chief.  Police officers documented the race of every person they had contact with, the reason for that contact and the result. The study found members of the black community were stopped by police 3.7 times more than their representation in the general population.

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University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley said the “discourse of denial” within police services around race-relations needs to change. He said research suggests it’s easier to change through ongoing documentation. (University of Toronto)

The study "got high accolades from Blacks and Aboriginals," Wortley said. "But it created a lot of tension."

Wortley said much of the tension came from the police association in Kingston. It didn’t support the research.

"There’s a view, as police officers, if we say we’re not racist, you should take us at our word," Wortley said.

Wortley said it’s the same attitude that likely led to Thunder Bay’s police association saying it is "outraged" by the human rights complaint filed against Thunder Bay Police by three First Nations.

"The action announced today (Sept. 17) is not in the best interest of any of the citizens of Thunder Bay," Thunder Bay Police Association President Greg Stephenson said. "It is counter-productive to the meaningful partnerships that we have built between the police and the citizens we vow to protect."

Documenting ‘keeps people honest’

Wortley said those sorts of comments are a typical union reaction to complaints against police. But he said they often serve to fuel distrust between police and the public.

"It gives the impression that you’ve got something to hide," Wortley said.

Wortley said the "discourse of denial" within police services around race-relations needs to change. But he said that change is unlikely to come through sensitivity programs or other partnership initiatives.

"Research suggests it’s easier to change through monitoring," Wortley said. "Documenting [the race of police contacts] keeps people honest."

The chair of Thunder Bay’s Police Services Board said he wasn’t aware of the Kingston study, but would mention it to the police chief.

"Anything that’s going to assist in co-operating with our citizens, I’m certain we would take a look at," Joe Virdiramo said.