Toronto·In Depth

Why these young men feel 'guilty until proven innocent' in Toronto

Imagine you can't travel in your community without being stopped by police to be made to feel like a suspect — that's how some young men feel in Toronto. They're calling for solutions to end racial profiling and discrimination.

Extent of racial profiling by police to be documented in Monday report by Ontario Human Rights Commission

From left to right: Jeffrey Saah, Tolu Atkinson and Randell Adjei want to see more outreach from Toronto police to restore trust with diverse communities. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Whenever blue and red flashing lights appear in Randell Adjei's rear-view mirror, he said he gets a queasy feeling.

The 27-year-old community leader said he's been randomly checked near his home in Scarborough, Ont., so frequently that he can't recall a single positive experience with Toronto police.

Last time he was pulled over, he said he was told the officer wanted to make sure he was carrying insurance, even though he hadn't done anything wrong. 

"I feel like I'm violated," Adjei said.

"I can't travel in my own community without being stopped or without feeling like I'm a suspect."

Adjei is not alone. 

Similar experiences are expected to be documented in an unprecedented report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Monday detailing findings from an extensive inquiry into allegations of racial profiling and discrimination by the Toronto Police Service.

Even though there are restrictions on street checks, Randell Adjei said the practice continues. The 27-year-old community leader from Scarborough, Ont., said he and other people in his neighbourhood are randomly stopped by Toronto police and asked for identification. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The study will include police statistics from 2010 to 2017 about stop and question practices, use of force and arrests in various offence categories, such as simple drug possession and failure to comply with bail conditions. 

Fitting the description

Toronto police will not comment until the report is published, but they said they welcome the findings and are working to address the issue of implicit bias. 

Like Adjei, Louis Mensah, 28, said he gets what he describes as a "bubbling" feeling in the pit of his stomach at the sight of police cruisers. 

"You're guilty until proven innocent, which is so weird," Mensah said.

"You haven't even talked to me. I haven't opened my mouth. You don't know how educated I am."

Ebenzer Oteng talks on stage during a public speaking event on Dec. 8 in Toronto. The 27-year-old said community members have a role to play in mending relations with police, including saying "Hi" to officers. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

As a student studying at York University, Mensah said he was knocked to the ground by police because he fit the description of a suspect.

"They paint a picture of how the ideal criminal looks," Mensah said.

"I'm always in a hoodie, sweats and I'm a big guy. If you see me walking down the street in all black, you're thinking what is this guy up to? It just sucks."

Solutions involve police and communities

Even though the practice of arbitrary police street checks has been restricted, some young men said they still feel targeted. 

"Personally, I don't feel like I've really been served and protected by the police," Adjei said.

"There's this fear that I think has been embedded in my community."

Instead of feeling innocent until proven guilty, Louis Mensah said he usually feels guilty until proven innocent whenever he is stopped by police. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Even though they have had many negative experiences, they don't call the situation hopeless. 

The young men shared possible solutions before taking to the stage on Saturday at a public speaking event. 

"There's some great cops," said Ebenezer Oteng, a 27-year-old who grew up in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood. 

"I could be driving, bumping my music, look at an officer and I bump my head and they bump back. It's a respect thing."

Tolu Atkinson, 26, said he was given a Slurpee coupon by a police officer in Vancouver for wearing safety equipment while he skateboarded as a child. The experience remains a good memory. He hopes police forces across the country can adopt similar positive practices. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

But Oteng admits not everyone feels comfortable even saying "Hi" to officers due to fears of getting pulled over, which is something he would like to see changed from both sides. 

Youth mentoring

Jeffrey Saah, 28, said he has been stopped by police multiple times, and thinks the practice of carding should be flipped on its head. 

"If police are supposed to be public servants, then they should almost be like mentors to people in the community," Saah said.

"Maybe they should have a case load of five to 10 youth or more, where they actually go to them. They actually speak to them. They actually go to events with them."

The young men embrace on Dec. 8 to lend each other support at a public speaking event. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Tolu Atkinson, 26, wants to see more police outreach work. 

When he was a child, he said he was given a Slurpee coupon by a police officer in Vancouver because he rode his skateboard with safety gear.

"That was a positive experience with police that needs to be implemented more often," Atkinson said.

"That type of experience should be amplified and projected."

Who gets to serve?

Atkinson said he would like to see more officers of diverse backgrounds so people feel reflected in their police forces. 

Adjei agrees, but thinks communities should get a say in the hiring process. 

"If you're going to serve somebody, you got to understand the youth in the community, you got to understand the elders in the community, the dynamics," Adjei said. 

"The best thing to do is to get to know people so that way when they see you in your uniform, it's not a fear. It's more I know why you're coming into my community."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Send story tips to: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.