Nova Scotia

1 year after Wortley report, author says police reform in N.S. has long way to go

The Toronto criminologist behind a report that found Black people in Halifax are disproportionately targeted by street checks says police reform must be more than lip service as calls to defund forces grow louder.

Scot Wortley says how police treat Black people needs to be monitored more closely

A report by Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminology professor, found that police in the Halifax region do more street checks than police in Montreal, Vancouver or Ottawa. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

The criminologist behind a report that found Black people in Halifax are disproportionately targeted by street checks says police reform must be more than lip service as calls to defund forces grow louder.

As people in the U.S. and Canada protest anti-Black racism and police brutality following American George Floyd's horrific killing by a Minneapolis police officer, Scot Wortley said he's hopeful the province and police forces take action on his recommendations.

But Wortley said he has also seen the opposite happen far too many times.

"The issue will drift from the headlines and public consciousness, and then we'll wake up 10 years later and there'll be another event that will spark a crisis, and we'll be asking ourselves, 'What happened to the last 10 years?'" Wortley told CBC's Information Morning on Tuesday.

It's been more than a year since Wortley issued his findings that Black people in the Halifax area were six times more likely to be street checked by police than white people.

While he applauds the Nova Scotia government and police for their "remarkably quick response" in banning the practice, he said much more needs to be done — and fast.

"We're at this threshold now of a year," Wortley said. "If another year passes and major recommendations have not been implemented, I think the likelihood that they will ever be implemented declines."

What still needs to happen

Wortley said how police treat Black people, including during traffic stops, need to be monitored more closely and the data collected so that police can be held accountable.

"What is the evidence that the number of unnecessary police interactions with members of the African Nova Scotia community have been reduced? What is the evidence that race relations have improved? What is the evidence that other recommendations are being treated seriously and considered?" he said. 

Criminologist Scot Wortley was involved in a pioneering study of street checks in Kingston, Ont., in 2005. (Pam Berman/CBC)

The program co-ordinator for the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition has said street checks are still happening, and that the police and province aren't working fast enough to implement Wortley's recommendations.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella said last week that his force offers regular training to officers on de-escalation techniques and anti-racism.

I think we need to go beyond simple lip service to these issues.​​​- Scot Wortley, criminology professor at University of Toronto

But Wortley said often police training "has no teeth" and involves officers checking a box saying they've attended, rather than being tested on what they've learned.

"I think we need to go beyond simple lip service to these issues," Wortley said. "There needs to be greater transparency with respect to data collection to demonstrate that all people are treated equally."

What defunding the police could look like

While Wortley hopes the province turns his recommendations into meaningful reform, others are calling for police departments to be defunded.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the majority of city council vowed to disband the police department.

But defunding the police doesn't mean allowing "chaos in the streets," said Harry Critchley, vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society.

Some people in Halifax say it's time to reallocate funding to mental health and other community supports. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC News)

"It's not as controversial an idea as many people seem to think it is," Critchley told CBC's Information Morning. "Defunding the police can be as simple as moving towards the civilianization of roles that are currently filled by police."

That could mean police get out of the business of detaining people who are publicly intoxicated and that social workers and trained nurses respond to mental health calls, rather than police officers.

As Halifax regional council prepares to vote on this year's budget, some people say it's the perfect time to defund the police. 10:35

As Halifax council debates its budget Tuesday, Coun. Waye Mason said "there's a lot of openness in Halifax both within the police and within council to talk about looking at new approaches."

Halifax has long talked about putting more money into community supports like mental health services, Mason said, adding that regional council will look at where money should go for the next budget year.

"I think if we're going to be trying to move things out of the police budget, we need to have somewhere to move them to," he said.

Calls to defund police are 'knee-jerk,' says police federation 

The president of the National Police Federation, meanwhile, said calls to defund police departments are "a little knee-jerk right now."

"I think what they're asking for is more to refund programs that have been defunded in society over the last decade to two decades," Brian Sauvé said Tuesday.

Brian Sauvé is the president of the National Police Federation. (CBC)

For example, he said many inpatient psychiatric hospitals have become outpatient facilities "because we don't want to fund all the nurses and all the doctors and all the beds." That means police have had to take on the responsibility of responding to mental health calls, he said.

When asked if the RCMP and other police services are the right people to respond to these calls or wellness checks, Sauvé said that's the current reality.

He said there has been a lot of additional training developed for RCMP members and police in general because of "a reaction to the defunding of social service programs," but that it could still be improved.

With files from CBC's Information Morning