We need to demand the sort of policing we want in Ottawa

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau says one reason racialized groups are stopped more than their white peers is that police hang out more in "areas with high crime or social disorder issues." But that raises deeper questions about how we want police officers to serve our communities.

Study shows possible perception that some drivers stopped as a form of police harrassment

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau has a possible explanation for why Middle Eastern and black men — young ones, in particular — are being stopped by police at much higher rates than their white peers. 

"Residents want us to be visible and active in areas with high crime or social disorder issues and to respond to violent crimes, shootings and gang activity," the chief said Monday as a report on traffic stop race data was released.

"Increased police visibility work in these neighbourhoods often results in increased traffic stops."

Bordeleau has a point, to a point: if police are hanging out more in communities with higher representations of black and Middle Eastern folks, then the drivers they stop might well come disproportionately from those groups too. 

But the statement raises so many more questions, deeper questions, about how we want police officers to serve our communities.

This may result in a perception that traffic stops are merely a form of police harassment.- Race Data and Traffic Stops in Ottawa, 2013-2015: A Report on Ottawa and the Police Districts

Respond to violent crimes, shootings and gang activity? Absolutely.

Pull over drivers for no clear reason? That's debatable.

Racialized groups pulled over more for 'suspicious' activity

And Bordeleau didn't address some of the most disturbing parts of the study. While an overwhelming majority of drivers — 97 per cent — were stopped for regular traffic infractions, three per cent, or 2,430 drivers, were pulled over for suspicious or criminal activities. And for these more serious concerns, minorities were way over represented.  

"These findings suggest … racialized minority groups have a great propensity to be suspected by police officers of doing something problematic or criminal," according to the report.

The data doesn't drill down to these specifics, but it would be interesting to know how many of these stops for suspicious or criminal activities ended up in charges. Racialized groups had a "disproportionately high incidence" of getting off (without even a warning) than whites for traffic stops overall, which the report called the "most surprising finding" of the study.

Could it be that more racialized drivers were, in fact, being stopped for no reason? The thought occurred to the report's authors.

"This may result in a perception that traffic stops are merely a form of police harassment, as police officers may see no justification for warning or laying charges. This situation warrants additional thoughts on how traffic-stop, as a police practice of law enforcement, could be made more effective."

Call for more community policing

Here's something else that warrants additional thought: how much emphasis do we want our officers to put on traffic stops?

That's not to say traffic isn't an issue. It's the No. 1 concern councillors hear about. But when Bordeleau talks about being "active in areas with high crime or social disorder issues," it's hard to believe the major issues residents are worrying about are traffic violations.

At every public meeting on community safety, residents say they want more boots on the ground, more police presence in their neighbourhoods. They want officers who understand the dynamics of their communities, a recognizable face who residents feel comfortable approaching or confiding in. They want community policing, which is on the brink of being reduced.

The police complied with the Ontario Human Rights Commission order to participate in this report. The OHRC, it should be noted, found the report's analysis "consistent with racial profiling," although the York University professors hold there is no proof of profiling.

Either way, the report does confirm what community members had suspected: that police pull over racialized drivers at higher rates than whites. In the words of one of its authors, Dr. Lorne Foster, the unconscious biases that may exist in the police force are now "visible." 

The police will have to act. But so must we.

What you can do

If you want police to change its focus, to be more integrated into communities, it's time to act. Tell the mayor, tell your councillors: council controls the police force's purse strings.

The province is overhauling the Ontario Police Services Act right now. So tell your MPP what role you think police should play in your community. Remember, ​Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi is the Attorney General, so send him your views.

If you're concerned about police oversight, attend the public consultation on police oversight being held by Justice Michael H. Tulloch this Wednesday evening at the Wabano Centre from 5 to 8 p.m.

And save this date: Nov. 24. That's when a public meeting on the race-collection study will be held, Ottawa Police Services Board chair Eli El-Chantiry announced Monday.

The police started this discussion. But maybe we'd like "increased visibility" to result in something other than "increased traffic stops."


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.