Nova Scotia

Halifax police could drop use of 'Middle Eastern' when describing suspects

Halifax police are perpetuating damaging stereotypes by using the term Middle Eastern to describe four unknown cab drivers suspected in a recent string of alleged sexual assaults, critics say.

'We do acknowledge that this is, potentially, a bad way of doing things,' says Const. Amit Parasram

A member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission says millions of people from the 17 countries in the Middle Eastern region come from disparate backgrounds, which means their physical attributes vary widely. (Shutterstock)

Halifax police are perpetuating damaging stereotypes by using the term Middle Eastern to describe four unknown cab drivers suspected in a recent string of alleged sexual assaults, critics say.

"There's no such thing as a Middle-Eastern-looking person," said Raja Khouri, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Arab Institute.

Khouri, who is also member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said the millions of people from the 17 countries in the region come from disparate backgrounds, which means their physical attributes vary widely.

"You can be white. You can be black. You can be somewhere in between," he said. "It's an inaccurate description, and it leaves the door open to whatever stereotypes people have in mind for bad people."

Spate of alleged assaults in cabs

A recent spate of sexual assault allegations against Halifax taxi drivers has thrown the local industry into a state of crisis, cab drivers say. There have been five alleged attacks in the past three months alone, compared with three alleged sexual assaults by cab drivers in all of 2015.

According to the police reports — the most recent one came out Thursday — four of the five suspects were described as "Middle Eastern men." One police statement, from May 20, described the accused as "Middle Eastern or a light-complected black man with an accent."

Thursday's police statement described the suspected as "possibly of Middle Eastern descent."

There have been five alleged assaults by taxi drivers in the Halifax area reported so far in 2016. (CBC)

'You can be racist without meaning to be racist'

Khouri said the Middle Eastern identifier, when used in conjunction with criminal activity, is typically associated with stereotypical notions about terrorism suspects.

"You can be racist without meaning to be racist," Khouri said in an interview.

"But that doesn't make it any less racist in terms of its impact. I wouldn't accuse the police of racism ... [But] it's misguided. They should discontinue use of the term."

Const. Amit Parasram, diversity officer for Halifax Regional Police, said the Middle Eastern description was given to investigators by each of the young, female victims.

Police force willing to talk about dropping term

"That is the best information we have at the time toward identifying that person … I acknowledge that it's not the ideal," he said Wednesday.

"I could look like a Middle Eastern person, when in fact I'm of Indian descent and grew up in the Caribbean."

Parasram conceded the term, when used for a physical description, is based on stereotypes, and he said the police force is willing to talk about dropping its use.

"We do acknowledge that this is, potentially, a bad way of doing things and this is something we can improve upon," he said.

"And it may be something that we have to look at dropping altogether.… We recognize that the inclusion of a description like that might be reliant on a perceived stereotype, and that might be perceived as offensive."

'I think they're on thin ice'

Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen said police could avoid stereotypes by instead describing specific physical traits — height, weight, clothing and the colour of skin, hair and eyes — rather than speculating about origins.

"All of a sudden it's not the … [particular] perpetrator we're looking for, or are suspicious of. It's everyone from the Middle East and how we think they look," he said.

"That's why we're in dangerous territory.

"The concern for stereotyping and discrimination is there — I think they're on thin ice."

Charges laid in 1 of 5 cases

Cohen said the decision by police to relay the information given to them by complainants requires more scrutiny.

"They're relying on the bigotry and the bias of the person giving the description," he said.

The high-profile lawyer said there's a "hidden text" that is taking aim at immigrants, particularly those of the Muslim faith — an assertion flatly denied by police.

Charges have been laid in one of the Halifax cases from earlier this year but not the other four, police said. All three cases in 2015 resulted in charges, which are now being processed through the courts.

now