Critics doubt new police stats on street checks

Ottawa police stopped a total of seven people between March and December 2017, according to a report released ahead of today's Ottawa Police Services Board meeting.

2017 tally of just 7 checks 'absurdly low,' says defence lawyer

Criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt believes the number of people reported to have been stopped as part of a street check in 2017 in Ottawa is 'absurdly low' and is caused by officers' overly broad interpretation of the regulations. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

After spending more than $500,000 to implement new provincial rules governing street checks, Ottawa police stopped only seven people between March and December 2017, according to a report released ahead of Monday's Ottawa Police Services Board meeting.

That figure marks a steep decline in the number of checks reported by city police, prompting critics of the controversial practice to question what's not being captured by the statistics.

"These numbers are so shockingly low and so against the historic trend," said criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt.

"It's been such a reversal overnight that I simply don't believe them."

The Government of Ontario passed new regulations in March 2016 governing how police forces across the province conduct street checks and store the information they collect.

New regulations

The regulations were introduced to ban random and arbitrary stops, responding to criticisms that officers were targeting people based on their race or the neighbourhood where they lived.

Between 2011 and 2014, police collected information on more than 45,000 people through street checks.

But since the implementation of new rules in late March 2017, Ottawa police say they've collected information from only six men and one woman.

According to the report, information was collected from one black individual, one Asian individual, two persons of Middle Eastern ethnicity and three Caucasians.

'Absurdly low' numbers

Describing those numbers as "absurdly low," Spratt said he believes they result from an overly broad interpretation of exceptions contained in the new rules.

Under the regulations, police can only stop and collect information from members of the public when investigating general criminal activity, inquiring into activities deemed to be suspicious, or gathering information for intelligence purposes.

The rules don't apply when police are conducting a traffic stop or when they have reasonable grounds to believe an interaction is necessary to investigate a specific offence.

Seven [people] doesn't seem realistic to me — or honest.- Dahabo Ahmed Omer, Justice for Abdirahman

It's that latter exception that's problematic, Spratt said, as it relies on individual officers to interpret what constitutes reasonable grounds to investigate someone.

"Until we know what encounters fell under that exception, the outcomes of those encounters and the race of [people targeted by] those encounters, this report is not worth very much," he said.

Police stand by report

Ottawa police Deputy Chief Steve Bell rejected suggestions that officers are stopping individuals beyond what was captured in the report.

"I don't believe that's happening," he said.

"Anything beyond that hasn't been recorded on our system," Bell added, noting that it was the lack of transparency about police data collection that inspired the new regulations.

Ottawa police Deputy Chief Steve Bell says new provincial rules have inhibited officers from performing street checks, limiting their ability to investigate crimes. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Asked to explain how the number of annual checks could plummet from thousands to just seven, Bell said the drop results from officers' efforts to adapt to the new regulations.

Officers are now reluctant to conduct checks, he said.

"They feel they're inhibited from collecting a lot of information or having a lot of interactions with people," Bell said.

The decline in the number of checks isn't limited to Ottawa, Bell added, describing it as part of a trend observed by police forces across the province.

As for the $546,000 spent on officer training and records management, Bell said the police force's hands were tied by the requirement to comply with provincial regulations.

"That unfortunately is just the cost of us having this system," he said.

An adjustment

Bell said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday that adjusting to the new rules has been complex.

"My background is in criminal investigations and I know the value of being able to collect that information," he said.

"For us to get to a spot where we have some balance in how much of that information we can collect will be a good thing. That's something we're continuing to work through with the province."

As Ottawa continues to grapple with an increasing number of shootings, the force is trying to "re-engage" officers to collect information specifically as it relates to specific criminal: "who they're hanging out with, where they are in the city, what kind of vehicles they're driving," Bell said.

No traffic stop data

Community groups in Ottawa had long called for changes to Ontario's carding rules, saying that systemic racism and unconscious bias meant racialized communities were disproportionately targeted.

With this latest report proving a first glimpse into the information collected under the new regulations, one activist said she has a hard time believing the numbers.

Dahabo Ahmed Omer, spokeswoman for the Justice for Abdirahman coalition, says there are gaps in provincial carding rules that need to be addressed. (CBC)

"Being carded is a massive issue in our city," said Dahabo Ahmed Omer, a spokesperson for the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition.

"Seven [people] doesn't seem realistic to me — or honest."

Ahmed Omer said police should also be required to collect and disclose traffic stop data, describing the absence of that requirement as a glaring gap in the regulations.

A 2016 report analyzing two years of traffic stops in Ottawa found that Middle Eastern and black drivers — especially young men — were far more likely to be stopped by Ottawa police than other drivers.

"This review has no teeth if it does not include that," she said.