Even limited data shows traffic stops in Canada disproportionately affect people of colour, says expert
'That data is good for police, as well as good for the community, and that hasn't caught on yet,' says expert
Following the recent shooting of Duante Wright near Minneapolis — and nearly a year after the death of George Floyd by police in that city — traffic stops by police still disproportionately affect people of colour, including in Canada.
Though the race-based data on policing in Canada, and traffic stops in particular, is lacking, University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says that based on what's available — including data compiled by CBC News — the conclusion is undeniable.
"The information that we have that we can garner from studies into racial profiling show quite clearly that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately stopped," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Questions surrounding traffic checks once again emerged after Wright, a 20-year-old Black man from Brooklyn City, Minn., was shot by former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter after he was stopped while driving. Wright's death has been followed by daily protests outside the city's police station. Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter over the shooting.
Race-based data on police interactions is collected across the United States, but the practice is uncommon in Canada. Experts say that objective information is a key part of reducing the number of deadly interactions between police and people of colour.
"What happens normally — and hopefully it's happening less — is the police would say, 'No, there is no such thing as racial profiling,' and the racialized public would say, 'Racial profiling happens to me all the time, every single day.' And you couldn't bridge that gap," said Lorne Foster, a professor at York University in Toronto who studies race-based data in policing.
"Certainly the data, I hope, it bridges that gap. It provides a foundation from which you can have a rational and constructive conversation."
Data lacking or hard to access
Owusu-Bempah says that with police forces across the country lacking in systematic data collection, he believes the federal government needs to step in and improve processes.
He noted the federal government has already made attempts to do so, including his own government-funded research into best practices for the use of force by police.
While some data exists, its quality can vary, he says.
"One of the things that we've attempted to do is to collect information both publicly available and through request from police services across the country," he said.
"What has become strikingly clear to us in the context of this work is that there are huge variations in the type of information that is one, collected, [and two], that's made public."
Foster, who is collecting data for Peel Regional Police and has worked with Ottawa Police in the past, believes that police forces — at least in Ontario — are improving their data collection. But he added that they also need to change their approach to community relations.
"They have to stop denying the possibility of challenges between themselves and the community, and they have to deal with them head on," Foster said.
"Once they do that, they recognize that they need to have that data. That data is good for police, as well as good for the community, and that hasn't caught on yet."
Kenrick McRae, a Black man living in Montreal, shared his experiences of regularly being stopped by police with CBC Radio's The Doc Project earlier this year.
"They might say some kind of light is not working, [or] they thought I didn't have my seatbelt on, but when they come up, they see the seatbelt is on," he said.
Reducing use of force
Foster says that it's time for police forces to reimagine the way they interact with the public. Part of that reimaging revolves around not only collecting data on interactions, but reframing its importance.
"They are really, really good at crime analytics. They're really good at data. And they could transfer that expertise to the delivery of services to the public equally as well."
But data won't reduce the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people stopped by police on its own.
While he cautions against using the "fair and respectful" treatment of people by police as a solution to the problem, Owusu-Bempah says it's one step closer.
"To the extent that we can reduce unnecessary police encounters with members of the public period and members of racialized populations specifically, the better we're going to be at reducing use of force."
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah produced by Ashley Fraser.
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