Canada·CBC Investigates

Why race-based data collection by police could play a role in reform debate

As the Black Lives Matter movement spreads across Canada, the conversation around police accountability and reform has grown, including a rising interest in collecting more race-based data on people who interact with officers. 

Ontario is only province to mandate race data collection when force is used on a person

Ontario is the first province to mandate all its police officers to collect race-based data when they use force on an individual. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As the Black Lives Matter movement spreads across Canada, the conversation around police accountability and reform has grown, including a rising interest in collecting more race-based data on people who interact with officers. 

Adora Nwofor has been on the front lines with Black Lives Matter in Calgary. The activist and comedian says that if we do start collecting more race-based data, it's important to make sure it helps the people it is supposed to help. 

"If you want to collect race-based data, I very, very highly suggest that it is the populations that it affects that are getting that information first and then we are allowed to make suggestions as to what should be happening," she said.

Earlier this year, Ontario became the first province to mandate all its police officers to identify and document the race of an individual on whom they have used force. This data collection initiative comes against the backdrop of large demonstrations against police violence in Canada, and the renewed focus on the policing of Black and Indigenous communities. 

"By collecting disaggregated race data, you can provide a baseline for conversation. You can provide a baseline for creating a dialogue between police and the citizenry," said Lorne Foster, a professor of public policy and human rights at York University in Toronto. 

Comedian and activist Adora Nwofor takes the stage at a Black Lives Matter rally in Calgary on June 6, 2020. (CBC)

But not everyone thinks the goal of race data collection makes sense.

"I know for a fact that we're victims, many people can say it, too." said Samuel, a Black man from Montréal-Nord whose last name CBC has agreed not to publish because he fears harassment. His recent arrest during a traffic stop went viral after being videotaped. 

"[The police] are going to try to show us what they want to show us, and not what we're supposed to see."

Samuel, left, whose recent arrest during a traffic stop in Laval went viral after being videotaped, says the mandatory collection of race data on use of force reports is not going to be enough to keep police officers accountable. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

No charges were laid after Samuel's traffic stop.

Foster was hired in 2013 by the City of Ottawa to design and study a race-based data collection project for police traffic stops. The project involved officers recording the race of the people they pulled over.

The pilot project was borne out of a human rights case involving a Black man who was stopped by police and alleged that he experienced racial profiling.

The data collected by the Ottawa police starting seven years ago showed that drivers who appeared to be Black or Middle Eastern were stopped at disproportionately higher rates. 

The report found that in 2017-2018, "Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 3.18 times more than what you would expect based on their segment of the driving population while Black drivers were stopped 2.3 times more than what you would expect based on their population."

'This could be duplicated'

After the results were released, the police service created a multi-year action plan on diversity and inclusion in relation to the findings.

The Ottawa pilot is one of the few such initiatives in the country.

"We really do believe this could be duplicated in other municipalities across Canada," Foster said.

In Ontario, since Jan. 1, 2020, officers have had to formally report the race of an individual in cases where they draw or fire a handgun, use a weapon other than a firearm on someone or are involved in a physical altercation with an individual that causes serious injuries requiring medical attention.

Officers must choose from a list of seven ethnic categories featured on what's called a use of force report — a document that is filled out by police after such encounters. 

The reports are sent to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees policing in the province, for analysis. 

It's part of Ontario's Anti-Racism Act, which mandates race data collection "to identify and monitor systemic racism and racial disparities for the purpose of eliminating systemic racism and advancing racial equity." 

As of Jan. 1 of this year, Ontario police officers must choose from a list of seven ethnic categories when filling out a use of force report. (Ministry of the Solicitor General)

But while race-based data has been shown to help bring about reform, advocates are wary of how it will be used and caution against it as a one-stop solution to racial profiling.

"I think that before we continue to push for getting race-based data, we need to make some changes based on the information we already have," said Nwofor.

"Quite frankly, I don't need more race-based information next. I need change next. I need application of ideas from people who know that the police are systematically racist."

WATCH | Adora Nwofor says that change can happen based on data already out there:

Change is now

3 years ago
Duration 1:27
Comedian and activist Adora Nwofor says more race-based information is not needed to facilitate change.

It's a perspective echoed by Myra Tait, an Indigenous lawyer and an instructor on Indigenous justice issues at the University of Winnipeg. Tait has studied how data and research are used in the justice system. While she sees benefits of race data collection and analysis, she said the process must happen in consultation with those the statistics affect.

"We have a very long history in this country of being studied and researched and having data collected on us, only to twist that around to blame the victim in a sense," she said. "If you want to collect that data, then you do it with us. And you do it for us."

WATCH | Myra Tait explains why collecting race data is sensitive:

‘The story that comes from the data’

3 years ago
Duration 1:06
Indigenous lawyer Myra Tait says race data collection is important -- but so is data ownership.

Apart from Ontario, there are no provincewide mandates to collect race-based policing data. Some police services have taken on pilot projects to collect the data themselves in the past. Ottawa police are collecting the data for traffic stops, while Toronto and Halifax have collected data on street checks or police carding.

 ​​​​​​CBC News contacted Ontario's 46 municipal police forces and the Ontario Provincial Police about how they are collecting and using race-based data. 

Examining the data

While all of them have to send their reports to the province for analysis, some of them are also examining the data themselves. The extent of community engagement in the process is not clear in every case. 

The Toronto Police Service, however, has put in place a race-based data collection strategy in order to prioritize community input, which has included four town halls, 51 focus groups and engagement with more than 800 residents. 

"We asked them questions about our strategy: what they wanted to see from it, what did they think needed to be included in the training," said Suelyn Knight, unit commander of the equity, inclusion and human rights section of the Toronto Police Service.

"It's important for people to know that that's also what's fuelling our strategy, the voices from  [the] community. And we'll continue to do that. That was not a one-off." 

The Toronto race data collection initiative comes after controversies over racial profiling by the force, especially with regards to street checks, or police carding, of individuals.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard says it's important that data collection happens with the community it is supposed to affect in mind. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In Nova Scotia, street checks were also controversial, and in fact were outlawed after a race-based data pilot project showed Black people were disproportionately targeted by Halifax police.

The analysis of data in that province is another example of race-based statistics leading to change, but it happened only after the public pressured the release of the data in 2017. Halifax police collected the data for years without making it public, and community consultation was missing from the equation.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard of Nova Scotia followed the debate over street checks in Halifax closely. While she sees the benefit from making the data public, she said a cautious approach is needed.

"It's not just about collecting race-based data in policing, it's really about what happens with that data," Bernard said.

Protestors sit in a city street while others stand nearby holding signs, but the writing on the signs isn't clear. One person waves a large Black Lives Matter flag.
People across the country have joined Black Lives Matter rallies. Race-based data in policing could play a part in the debate. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"Who owns the data? How is the community informed about this information? How is the information used to inform policies, but also to inform practices?"

The use of force reports currently ask the officer to record the race of people according to the officer's perception. This raises questions about whether the information will be recorded correctly. 

"How does an officer decide or distinguish what race the person is?" said Rob Davis, chief of police in Brantford, in southwestern Ontario.

"My fear is there is room for error or generalizing and may lead to false data and a ripple effect of misrepresentations."

But it is the perception of the officer that's important, said Foster, who worked on the Ottawa study. 

"It's not self-identified race that matters. It's the other identified race that matters," he said. "In other words, it's the police that are doing the profiling. So it's the police who interpret an individual's race and act on that interpretation."

Analysis coming next year

The Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General says that currently, the Anti-Racism Act does not give them "the authority to collect self-identified race for use of force reports." Police officers are "asked to give their best assessment of an individual's race, honestly and in good faith. To identify and monitor the prevalence of racial bias or discrimination, it is important to capture perception." 

Ontario will analyze the race-based data every year, with the first release coming in 2021.

CBC News asked all other provinces and territories if they are planning to mandate race-based data collection for their police services. None had a plan like Ontario's.

Alberta, for instance, said that data collection was up to local police services, but the province was planning to modernize its policing laws to make sure police are "accountable to the communities they protect." 

Saskatchewan does not have a provincial requirement for its police services either, but its police oversight body recently started collecting information on race on its complaint forms. 

Others said it was up to the province or territory's own police services or municipalities to collect the data if they wanted to.

With files from Verity Stevenson