Day 6·Q&A

'Shielding' race-based data in policing allows for wilful ignorance of systemic racism, prof says

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says police in Canada have at times actively suppressed race-based data at a cost to the public.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah felt 'disgust' after Alberta's top RCMP officer denies systemic racism exists

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and senior fellow at Massey College. (Submitted by Akwasi Owusu-Bempah)
Listen8:24

This week, in the wake of calls to rethink policing in Canada and the U.S., the RCMP's deputy commissioner for Alberta said he does not think there is systemic racism in Canadian policing.

"I do see us different from the United States. I don't believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing; I don't believe that it's systemic through policing in Alberta," said Curtis Zablocki.

After a vocal backlash, Zablocki revised his comments on Friday to say systemic racism does in fact exist within the RCMP. 

According to Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, much of the race-based data in Canada often comes from ad hoc sources, as opposed to systematic collection and reporting. 

Owusu-Bempah, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and senior fellow at Massey College, added that police forces in Canada have at times actively suppressed that data at a cost to the public.

Here's part of his conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

What came to your mind when you heard those comments from the Alberta RCMP deputy commissioner?

Sadness, really. And a bit of disgust, to be honest. I don't think in 2020 we should have a deputy commissioner of our federal police force who doesn't understand what systemic racism is, or … can't acknowledge the fact that it is something that is a feature of Canadian policing, a feature of the RCMP as it is policing in much of the West. 

At this point, it should be taken as fact. And instead of denying its presence and pointing to individuals as being responsible for racially disparate outcomes, we should be acknowledging its existence and working towards ameliorating that, as police leaders in other services have done.

How much time do you spend looking for the data that you need to do that work? How readily available is the data that you use?

I study issues of race and justice and I'm interested in the police, the courts and correctional institutions and … the one area in which data is collected but, in my sense, often suppressed is from the policing realm.

In the United Kingdom, in the United States, researchers like myself can simply visit the websites of the FBI or the Home Office in the United Kingdom and download data sets that detail police activity over the course of a year or another time period.

That includes information about the race of both the suspects as well as the victims of crime. We simply don't have that here in the Canadian context.

Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki sidestepped calls for his resignation on Friday and vowed to eliminate systemic racism in his organization after previously denying it existed. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Why is that? What is the culture that suppresses that data, if that's what's going on?

Initially, I think the idea was if we had information that documented the amount of crime perpetrated or the level of contact the police have with specific racial groups, that would serve to further marginalize and stereotype those groups, that it could lead to stigmatization.

But over time, it became apparent that readily available, racially desegregated data was necessary to identify racial disparities in policing outcomes — and then importantly, to try and understand the underlying reasons for those disparities.

Of concern, from my perspective, for police agencies and other government agencies was that if they were to release that data, that that would then lead to allegations of discrimination.

If you're not having nuanced conversations and doing thorough analysis, that [data] would simply be used to support allegations that there's discrimination against those institutions. 

So then it was my understanding, my belief, that there was a reluctance to release that information precisely to shield the organizations and institutions from allegations of racial bias and other forms of discrimination. 

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said Friday that she believes systemic racism exists in the police force she leads, after telling several media outlets this week that she was 'struggling' to define the term. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But this is data that should be available, if we're about to launch a series of discussions about the systemic problems in police forces and how reforming those problems should be undertaken.

It seems like the police could benefit from making the data available so that the decisions that are made in an equitable way. 

Equitable and informed. Off the top, you asked me about the deputy commissioner's statement about systemic racism. We know systemic racism is a feature of our society and of policing. But again, that's not to say that all of the racial disparity in policing outcomes comes from racial discrimination. 

In fact, it could be that a small portion in certain areas or with respect to certain practices are a result of discrimination. And there are other underlying factors that explain the rest of those racial disparities.

And so part of this conversation needs to be around not just data collection with respect to policing, but to other outcomes. 

University of Toronto Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Vanier Scholar and author Robyn Maynard on what systemic racism looks like in Canada and what impact it has on the Black community. 9:19

We know, for example, that contact with the child welfare system increases contact with the criminal justice system. We know the same is true for poor educational outcomes, poor employment outcomes, issues related to housing.

And so if we have data from a range of social institutions and we can look at the relationship between these factors, we can start to, again, have a more informed and intelligent conversation rather than one that's often based on emotion and opinion.

Do you think that there is a connection between the data suppression at the RCMP and the statements like the one the Alberta RCMP deputy commissioner made denying the existence of systemic racism?

The short answer would be yes. When I saw that statement, I tweeted that the statement either comes from a genuine ignorance of the facts or a willing desire to mislead the public. And I think either one of those is troubling.


Written and produced by Yamri Taddese. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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