Hate crime unit never existed, Ottawa police say

The Ottawa Police Service says it never had a dedicated hate crime unit — despite plenty of evidence that it did, and disbelief from anti-racism advocates who say they've worked with its officers.

Declaration following graffiti incident baffles anti-racism advocates

Aisha Sherazi, formerly a member of Ottawa's Community and Police Action Committee, said she was 'very taken aback' to learn the Ottawa Police Service's hate crime unit never actually existed. (CBC)

The Ottawa Police Service says it never had a dedicated hate crime unit — despite plenty of evidence that it did, and disbelief from anti-racism advocates who say they've worked with its officers.

Questions about the hate crime unit arose last week after someone scrawled racist graffiti on a black family's Ottawa home.

When CBC asked police whether the hate crime unit was looking into the incident, a spokesperson initially said the unit had been retired.

Confusion, disappointment after police deny existence of hate crime unit

3 years ago
Duration 1:03
Rev. Anthony Bailey, minister at Parkdale United Church, says Ottawa police officers should get specific training that enables them to deal effectively with hate crimes.

According to a follow-up statement attributed to Supt. Chris Renwick of the criminal investigations directorate, "The Ottawa Police Service does not have a Hate Crime Unit, in fact we never had a dedicated investigative unit for hate crimes."

Instead, Renwick said, criminal acts "motivated by hate are assigned and investigated by our General Assignment Units (GAS).... Our Security and Intelligence Section (SIS) can offer investigative support to the GAS investigators during an investigation [into a crime] which is motivated by hate or extremism."

This racist message was scrawled on a home in east Ottawa two weekends ago. Ottawa police investigated and took photographs, but closed the case two days later due to lack of evidence. (Supplied)

Contradicts website, document

In yet another clarification the following day, Renwick explained that a constable position was created in the early 1990s "to address hate crimes," but that the position "has an intelligence focus and not an investigative one."

Investigating hate-motivated crimes remains the job of general assignment officers, Renwick explained.

That appears to contradict specific references to a hate crime unit in public statements and media reports dating back years, including a reference on the OPS website and in an internal policy document obtained by CBC.

According to numerous reports, a hate crime unit was created in 1993 in response to the 1989 death of Château Laurier waiter Alain Brosseau, who was murdered while walking home by attackers who mistakenly identified him as gay.

Alain Brosseau was attacked while walking through Major's Hill Park on his way home from work on Aug. 21, 1989, in what was identified as a hate crime. His death was thought to have been the catalyst behind the creation of the Ottawa police hate crime unit four years later. (CBC)

Unit billed as 1st in Canada

At the time, the investigative unit was billed as the first of its kind in Canada. In 2008, then mayor Larry O'Brien heaped praise on the unit on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of its creation, declaring Jan. 15 Hate Crime Awareness Day in the capital.

An investigator from the Hate Crime Section will contact you.- OPS website

According to an OPS policy document created in 2002 and amended most recently in January 2017, there is a "hate crime unit" that's responsible for collecting data, tracking trends, educating OPS members and others about hate crimes, supporting Crown prosecutors, and liaising with affected communities.

According to the document, the unit was led by a section head whose responsibilities included ensuring "that a complete investigation is carried out." The document suggests the unit included more than one officer.

There are also numerous references to a hate crime unit on the police service's own website, including this one, which advises people reporting a suspected hate crime that their complaints will be "forwarded to the Hate Crime Section for investigation. An investigator from the Hate Crime Section will contact you."

Complicating matters is that several police sources tell CBC the hate crime unit did exist, but has not had dedicated officers assigned to it in more than a year.

The Ottawa police website clearly refers to a 'Hate Crime Section.' (CBC)

'I was very taken aback'

News that police are now saying the section never existed came as a shock to activists who thought they'd been working with a specialized hate crime unit all along.

"I was very taken aback," said Aisha Sherazi, a past member of the police-community liaison group COMPAC, which was recently disbanded and replaced with the new Community Equity Council.

There's that safety net, that feeling that something is going to be taken seriously.- Aisha Sherazi, past member of COMPAC

COMPAC members had frequent interactions with officers belonging to what they thought was a hate crime unit, Sherazi said.

"So Ottawa police has had this hate crime unit, and it's very important to communities who are marginalized routinely. There's that safety net, that feeling that something is going to be taken seriously," Sherazi said.

Sen. Vern White said as long as hate-motivated crimes are being vigorously investigated, there may not be a need for a dedicated hate crime unit. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Hate crimes on the rise

Sen. Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief, said if the hate crime unit has in fact been disbanded, it's likely due to lack of resources.

"The police do not have the resources to manage the number of complaints they have — not just when it comes to hate crimes — I think it's across the board," White said.

White said he's not sure a dedicated hate crime unit is necessary, as long as hate crimes are being properly investigated by general assignment officers.

But Sherazi and other anti-hate advocates believe a dedicated unit is more important now than ever.

In 2017, Statistics Canada reported a sharp increase in hate crime in cities across Canada, including Ottawa.

Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa human rights advocate and founding board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, believes police services need dedicated hate crime units now more than ever. (NCCM)

Community should have been consulted

Ottawa's hate crime rate was 9.3 per 100,000 residents in 2017, compared to 9.1 in Toronto. The Canadian average for metropolitan areas was 6.9.

Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa human rights advocate and founding board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said a dedicated unit is critical to connect small incidents to larger trends, particularly in the current context.

She noted that the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City that killed six and injured 19 was preceded by a spike in relatively minor hate-motivated attacks on the same community.

Elghawaby said if a hate crime unit has indeed been disbanded, the community should have been involved in that discussion.