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Do Hamilton Police actually card black people disproportionately?

Hamilton Police say their focus on downtown — with its larger population of visible minorities residents compared to the whole city — is why the number of visible minorities in the carding/street check numbers are so high.

"It wouldn't make any sense for us to go to Waterdown and do street checks": Police union president

Hamilton Police say they focus their street checks 'predominantly' on downtown, where the ACTION team is deployed. (CBC)

Hamilton Police say their ACTION Teams' focus on downtown — with its larger population of visible minorities residents compared to the whole city — is why the number of visible minorities in the carding/street check numbers are so high.

Deputy Chief Eric Girt says that's the relevant comparison in evaluating whether racial minorities are mistreated in their carding practice — not comparing the numbers to the citywide population, which shows a disproportionate carding of visible minorities. 

A lot of the people who are active in the downtown core aren't necessarily residents.- Scot Wortley , criminologist, University of Toronto

But critics of carding raise questions about using one neighbourhood's population figures to assess whether racial bias plays into the stops.

The rate of black residents being street checked is still disproportionate in the downtown comparison, though not as much. 

And 25,000 people work downtown. Others go downtown from around the city and the region for entertainment and services. Critics ask how those numbers change the racial profile? How can police be sure the person they street check downtown is a downtown resident and not working or going out there? 

"A lot of the people who are active in the downtown core aren't necessarily residents," said Scot Wortley, a criminologist at the University of Toronto who has done race studies for police departments in Kingston and Ottawa. "It might be a little dubious to use census benchmarking in those areas because a lot of the people there aren't necessarily residents."

'It wouldn't make any sense for us to go to Waterdown'

Police also point out that businesses and politicians have asked the police to pay special attention downtown.

Street checks are just one of the proactive policing tools the ACTION team uses to fulfil that mandate to bring crime down downtown, police argue. 

"We asked, 'What does the community want?' And the community has spoken and said we want the downtown cleaned up," said Clint Twolan, president of the Hamilton Police Association. "It wouldn't make any sense for us to go to Waterdown and do street checks." 

But in targeting a particular neighbourhood for its crime, police also target the people who live there, argues Toronto-based anti-carding advocate and journalist Desmond Cole, who was in Hamilton the day the police released the new numbers.

"All you're saying is that you're reinforcing systemic racism," he said. "Because (the argument is) we have to be in the neighbourhoods that are poor, where there's more unemployed people, so that we can arrest more of those people, so that we can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and unemployment in those neighbourhoods. That's all you're telling me. Like, 'We're going where the crime is' and in every case, 'where the crime is' is where indigenous, black, brown people live."

'This distribution is quite a bit different'

The numbers presented Thursday were the first time Hamilton Police have shown data about the way their policing intersects with diverse communities.

Here's the breakdown over five years of street checks from 2010 to 2014, where black people made up an average of 12 percent: 

Hamilton Police street checks conducted between 2010 and 2014, broken down by race. (Hamilton Police Service)

Here's the race breakdown of the whole city. About 3.2 per cent of Hamilton's 510,000 residents are black, per 2011 Census numbers the police showed.  

When you compare that to 11 to 14 per cent of the street checks being done on black people, that adds up to black residents being stopped at a disproportionate rate of three to four times the population.

(Hamilton Police/Statistics Canada)

But downtown has a higher visible minority population. In downtown, 35 per cent of the population is visible minorities. About 25 per cent of their street checks involved visible minorities.

While the overall rate for minorities being street checked may not appear disproportionate downtown, the rate specifically for black people still is. Here's a graph Girt showed of the population breakdown in the downtown's economic growth zone, which makes up a chunk of the same section of downtown where Hamilton Police deploy their ACTION officers.

Though the black population measures 8 percent of the downtown population, the street check rate is still disproportionate at 11 to 14 per cent.

Racial breakdown in Hamilton's "downtown urban growth area": Hunter to Cannon, Queen to Victoria and the commercial strip on James Street from Charlton Ave. to the CN rail line. (Hamilton Police)

"As you can see, this distribution is quite a bit different than across the city," Girt said. "I think contextually it's an important thing to keep in mind."

Mayor: 'I would hope we take it to the next step'

Girt said the police didn't have time between the board's June request for the report and the July meeting to obtain stats for all of the neighbourhoods the ACTION team patrols, including Concession St. on the Mountain and McQuesten neighbourhood in the city's east end.

Although there are disproportionate impacts on visible minorities, this is primarily a question of the constitutionality of this police practice.- Coun. Matthew Green, Ward 3

The police plan to bring more information to the oversight board's September meeting about what it would mean to do more of this kind of race analysis. The police have been recording the race of the people they street check for years, but previously did not do any analysis for evidence of bias in their carding practices.

"I think this is great information, but I would hope that we kind of take it to the next step and report on and have a discussion about what the value is going forward, in terms of collecting this information, analyzing it, reporting it to the broader community and what the implications are," Mayor Fred Eisenberger said last week.

Coun. Matthew Green has called for the province to review Hamilton's street checks as part of drafting province-wide standards. He said disproportionate impact on black people was a "startling statistic to me, which really demonstrated what folks have been saying." 

But he said it's not just about race. 

"The arbitrary stopping of citizens and residents of Hamilton, not under investigation, is unconstitutional and counter to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms — regardless of race," he said. "Although there are disproportionate impacts on visible minorities, this is primarily a question of the constitutionality of this police practice."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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