Is police profiling out of control in Canada?

Is police profiling out of control in Canada?
A RCMP officer works on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 20, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Racial profiling is an extremely controversial subject. While some decry the practice as racist and a threat to civil liberties, others see it as simply another way of gathering and responding to data. The question remains: has profiling gone too far in this country?

A quick search of the Internet reveals articles on profiling dating back to the early 2000s, with references to reports and commissions stretching back to the 1970s. Police profiling and the perception thereof, is not a new concept.

What is police profiling?

Profiling is a technique employed by many police forces all across the world. In a nutshell, profiling is a process whereby the behavioural and psychological characteristics of an individual are recorded and analyzed to try to predict what he or she may be capable of. Police use profiling to identify suspects or to predict future crimes.

High-level profiling is a valuable tool for investigators. Officers on the beat, however, also practice a form of profiling when they randomly stop individuals who may seem suspicious in some way, based on their behaviour or appearance.

Many groups have long suspected police officers profile based on race, believing a disproportionate number of visible minorities are targets for traffic stops or street interviews. Many police officials argue otherwise.

Looking into the problem

Early examples of reports on police profiling include those of the Walter Pitman Task Force in 1977, the Race Relations and Policing Task Force report of 1989, and the 1992 Report to the Premier on Racism in Ontario. The conclusions universally agreed that police profiling was an issue, and that minority groups felt unduly persecuted by the police. However, there was a lack of supporting statistical data.

In 2005, Kingston, Ontario, police revealed the results of the first racial profiling study conducted in Canada. The study found that officers in that city were 3.7 times more likely to stop a black person than a Caucasian. Officers stopped Aboriginals 1.4 times as often as white people.

The Toronto Star newspaper reviewed 1.7 million contact cards filled out between 2003 and 2008 by Toronto Police officers. An officer files a contact card each time he or she makes a random stop of an individual. The results showed officers were three times more likely to stop non-white youths than white youths. Black people accounted for 41 percent of all cardings.

Reports show similar results in many other municipalities in Canada. While some police leaders continue to defend the practice, citing profiling as a valuable asset in crime prevention, there are concerns that even the perception of racial profiling is enough to promote distrust of the police among minority groups.

No less a body than the Ontario Human Rights Commission has openly admitted that racial profiling exists among police forces. Furthermore, the commission concluded that profiling is ineffectual, with supporting evidence coming from statistics from the Unites States. The commission also points to several examples of flawed logic used to argue in favour of profiling.

The future of police profiling in Canada

While no rational citizen would suggest removing the police presence from our streets to solve the issue of profiling, seemingly every study and survey conducted on the issue reinforces the belief that there is a problem.

Racial sensitivity training, community outreach programs and other initiatives are hopefully steps in the right direction. Police officers need to be able to perform their jobs and the innocent citizens of Canada should feel safe and comfortable in the presence of law enforcement officials.
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