Police street stops: Making the case for keeping race data

Hamilton Police are considering recording details about race when they stop people on the street who aren't under investigation and take their ID or record information. Voices who've closely followed the tensions elsewhere make the case for collecting it.

Rather than a case of law enforcement overreach, anti-racism advocates think this is a good idea

Hamilton Police Service community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson has met with advocates since a December anti-racism march. The service has said it will consider keeping race data to track incidence of racial profiling. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Hamilton Police will soon consider recording details about race when they stop people on the street who aren't under investigation and take their ID or record information. They say they'll be discussing it at an upcoming, yet so-far-unscheduled, Police Services Board meeting, the services community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson said last month. 

And rather than deeming it law enforcement overreach, anti-racism advocates think this is a good idea. 

CBC Hamilton talked to experts who've closely followed the tensions elsewhere in police interactions with people on the street who aren't under investigation, known commonly in Toronto as "carding." Here are some of the reasons they make in the case for collecting racial data:

Provides a benchmark

It's a way to measure the incidence of racial profiling — by collecting the race identifiers, police can establish a baseline for how much or how little race seems to come into play in whom they stop.

In Toronto, racial identifiers in so-called "carding" stops showed the practice was affecting black and brown young men at higher rates, first identified after a years-long Toronto Star investigation. Had the Toronto force not kept and turned over that race data, that disproportion might still be unknown. 

"I think it allows communities to see how their institutions are treating them, it's a mechanism for people to know whether or not there is bias in their institutions," said Desmond Cole, a staff writer for Torontoist who has also reported on carding for other publications. "I don't think that the first part about whether or not there is bias is even a question anymore. The reason we need the stats is because a lot of us are still in denial that this is a problem."

University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley said it's not enough for the forces to just keep the data -- they must commit to analysing and sharing the results. He noted the Star stories involved a "vigorous and expensive freedom of information process."

"That data was not turned over without a fight," Wortley said. 

Increases transparency

Wortley has studied police racial bias across Ontario and "carding" in Toronto. He oversaw a project in Kingston to formally collect race in street stops and evaluate police performance. The 2005 report, the first racial profiling study in Canada, found police stopped a disproportionate number of black and aboriginal men. 

The report proved controversial. But keeping the data was the first step in sparking the conversation.

"I think if you engage in this type of activity you're showing the public you have nothing to hide," Wortley said. Otherwise, he said, "you either have something to hide, or you're very paternalistic and you're saying, 'You can't handle the data.'"

Cole wrote about race-based data for this month's issue of The Walrus, encouraging institutions and the public not to fear keeping and turn over data like this across systems, not just in law enforcement.

"By crunching the numbers, we might be disturbed by what we find—whether it's discriminatory cops or poor performance by black students," he wrote. "We might be forced to have some difficult discussions. But we might also learn how to do better."

Wortley said just knowing the data is being kept could have an in-the-moment impact on why an officer decides to stop someone. 

"The data collection itself can actually reduce racial bias," Wortley said. "If officers know that they're being monitored, [perhaps] they spend more time deciding whether they want to stop and search someone." 

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


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