Q&A with Scot Wortley

Scot Wortley responds to questions posed by attendees of our Racial Profiling in Policing conference.

From your findings in these reports, what are the chances that eradicating racial profiling within the Quebecois police will positively impact racism against the Black population in Quebec as a whole? 

Quebec’s context is very different and distinct, and therefore, it does not necessarily think that problems that exist in other areas of Canada exist in Quebec. I've also seen a much higher proportion of political leaders deny systemic discrimination and almost imply that it may be a problem elsewhere but not in Quebec, which doesn’t hold positive implications for eliminating racism. It will be up to original research, including some of the research that has already been conducted in Montreal, that is likely to promote the eradication of racial profiling within the Quebecois police. To eradicate racial profiling in the police, Quebec might follow some of the recommendations, specifically concerning data collection, evaluation, and transparency.   

Do you think that having racial profiling decrease in Quebec will impact the racism against the Black community in Quebec?

It depends on if you can eliminate police profiling and how are you're going to do that. You can have various policy statements, training, and diversity hiring. But what you really have to do is document which is being stopped, questioned, and searched in a very transparent way that produces high-quality data. The data can make the reality of how the community experiences policing transparent to police officers. I've seen situations where police officers have said, “well, I stop people equally,” and then actually look at their record of who they stop and be shocked that their stop and question record looks so biased when in fact, in their mind, it was not. Controls on behavior, rules, regulations, documentation, and accountability measures will do more to reduce the negative impacts of policing Black communities and BIPOC communities in general. 

The other thing I have to say is I think policing is probably the profession that is most vulnerable to the development of negative racial stereotypes because of the nature of the work. Suppose you are a White officer who has minimal contact in their personal life with people of other racial backgrounds. In that case, you can go through the training academy and come out and then get thrown onto the streets where your only exposure to a particular racial group is through negative encounters. So, I think we need to do more to regulate behaviors than try to eliminate stereotypes because that would be very difficult and much harder to do. 

Are there any suggestions as to how we can ensure that the trained officers have demonstrated cultural competency? 

 Before regulating behaviors, program evaluation needs to be conducted. I’m an educator, so I've always believed that education can make a difference and it can turn on light bulbs. However, the big problem with training right now is that it's a box to tick, particularly race relations training. The officers who take training don't have to demonstrate any level of competence whatsoever; they can literally go in, fall asleep and not hear a word of the training going on and walk out of that session and say I've got race relations training. Until you make some kind of testing process where they have to pass a level or demonstrate competence, police will not take it seriously. I always use the example that to become a police officer in Ontario, you have to swim two lengths of an Olympics pool. If you can't swim those two laps, you don't become a police officer. And many people—interestingly enough, a lot of racial minority candidates—fail. This requirement is a form of systemic discrimination. At the same time, police officers don’t need to demonstrate any competency in dealing with a diverse population. You don’t have to show any knowledge about what racism or unconscious bias is. If you look at the big picture of policing, it's more important to show social competence than showing swimming competence, but the way that the occupation is set up demonstrates the exact opposite.

This is a pretty narrow factual question, but I wondered: Did Scot Wortley really find data that black youth report higher rates of street checks following the moratorium on street checks that he discussed?

We need to understand the difference between street checks and stops. I talked before about how even the elimination of street checks does not eliminate racial disparities in being stopped, questioned, and searched by the police. "Street check" is a very technical term from policing that refers to the documentation of people on the streets into a street check database used for intelligence purposes. It does not refer to traffic stops, pedestrian stops, or searches. In Ontario, where street checks are now regulated, police can still stop, question, and search somebody, but they can't document it without justifying it. Street check regulations in Ontario have eliminated the paper trail, but people on the street are still experiencing the same level of over-policing. I also think there's a lot of confusion about the language. Police are technically talking about the documentation into a street check data set, and they say, “well, we don't do that anymore.” But the public is talking about being stopped, questioned, and searched. The confusion with language has allowed them to continue engaging in fishing expeditions that often violate individuals’ charter rights without documenting what they're doing. 

In Halifax, the police put forth an argument that street checks had an intelligence purpose. They had provided examples where street checks solved Amber alerts, identified missing persons, and solved major crimes. I argued that it was very little evidence, but I wanted to give them two options: the first option was to regulate street checks as they did in Ontario, which basically eliminates them, and the second was to ban them. They eventually adopted the second option. I'm not a lawyer, so what I asked for in Halifax was a legal opinion on whether street checks, the retention of this data for intelligence purposes, were legal or not. They did get a judicial opinion, and the judge issued an order saying that they are not legal and violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The other thing that the Halifax report makes clear, however, is even if you ban street checks, you still have to ensure that the police document all traffic or investigative stops being conducted on pedestrians, even if you're not going to save that information for intelligence services. You need to know how much particular groups have this involuntary contact with police and how often they are searched, even if it's a consent search. Such encounters with the police have a visceral impact on the community. Pedestrians stops particularly upset people more. If you're in a car, there's kind of an understanding police do have a right to pull you over, ask for insurance and license, and do random checks. But pedestrian stops can really undermine public confidence in the police, and I think that's an important issue. 

If you are trying to keep these street checks, which I had a very narrow definition of, you need to see if they are constitutional or not. They have since been deemed illegal, and Nova Scotia banned street checks. However, they have not followed through on the other primary recommendation: you need to have a system for documenting racial differences in police stops. They have yet to do that. I think that one without the other is meaningless.

As a recent immigrant from the US, I wondered if the panel could speak on comparative reporting on racial profiling in the US vs. Canada? I would be especially interested in comments on any disparities in profiling between immigrant communities and native-born Black Canadians if there are any.

There's a lack of political will to pursue these issues. I think there's less of an acknowledgment that racism traditionally has been a problem here. We are a tolerant, diverse, multicultural country compared to the big bad United States with a racist history. This is prevalent among white Canadians who have bought into the mythology that our ancestors were kinder and gentler than Americans. Therefore racism is not a problem to the extent that it is in the United States. Maybe we are a little more tolerant, a little less openly racist or proud to be racist as they are in some segments in the United States, but it's still a huge issue here. In fact, it might be more of a problem because we're not conscious of it and don't want to talk about it. We did a survey where we asked a diverse sample of Canadians if they thought racism is less of a problem in Canada than in the United States. About 85% of white Canadians said yes, it's less of a problem than Canada compared to only about 40% of BIPOC Canadians. BIPOC Canadians say in the US they know where they stand, who they are dealing with, but in Canada, there is this kind of silent racism that's very difficult to pick out and nerve-wracking to deal with. 

The lack of concern among the white population has translated into a lack of political will among politicians. The police in Canada have a much higher level of respect than most Western nations and consequently have a lot of political power because politicians in Canada do not want to be viewed as anti-police. They don't want to be viewed as wanting to reform police or believing that there's a problem with policing. Canada has really embraced that kind of mantra, and as a result, when the politicians don't care, it doesn't translate into meaningful change.   

There might have been a little bit of a movement over the last few years, though, particularly among younger Canadians. One of the surveys I discussed in the presentation at the conference showed that, for instance, black perceptions of discrimination and policing have remained constant over the last 25 years, but 80% of the perceptions haven't gone up or hasn't gone down. It’s an important finding because it shows that whatever the police are doing to reform hasn't made any difference over the last 25 years. The one thing that was also very interesting was that the proportion of white people who think that discrimination in policing in Canada has gone up about 10-15%. This might get politicians' attention. 

And now we are seeing a lot more allyship globally and much more racially diverse protests, which I think shows that a higher portion of the population overall has become aware that these are issues and want change. This might generate some change.

In the CABL Report Race and Criminal Injustice: An Examination with the Ontario Criminal Justice System, you note that the increase in perceptions of racial bias occurred during a period when the police and courts had implemented numerous anti-racism initiatives and programs aimed at improving community relations. Do you think that this increase is due to raised public awareness about racial injustice or proof of the failure of these initiatives? What kind of evidence would be necessary to determine the actual cause of this increase? 

Three things have increased awareness of white people of racism. One of them has been research. When I started doing this in the 90s, there was nothing done here. There had been some committee meetings and allegations to hold up, but no systemic research on it. The research now has translated into media coverage, and media coverage has extended to coverage of incidents that have been consistent with racial profiling or the use of force. So, it's not only getting your research published or conducting the research and getting interesting findings but also communicating that research to the public. The Toronto Star and, to a certain extent, the Globe and Mail have done a good job of communicating some of the research that I and others have conducted in this district. I think more important though, is that now young people know each other more and have diverse social networks. Because there's so much crossover, people hear firsthand of their friends’ experiences and consider that racialized communities are more isolated. In the past, racialized people were also more reluctant to complain about their experiences because they felt that it would make them look bad. Social media, which is the mainstream media and alternative forms of information, has spread. Unfortunately, as we know from the United States and in certain sections of Canada, particularly Alberta, social media can spread hate. Still, I think that now there are more varied sources of information that may have contributed to a change in perception and awareness.

Scott WortleyScot Wortley

Associate Professor, Department of Criminology, University of Toronto

Dr. Wortley has been a Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto since 1996. His academic career began in 1993 as a researcher with the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Over the past twenty-five years Professor Wortley has conducted numerous studies on various issues including youth violence and victimization, street gangs, illegal firearms, crime prevention programming, public perceptions of the police and criminal courts, and racial disparity within the Canadian criminal justice system. In 2007, he was appointed by Metropolis to the position of National Priority Leader for research on Immigration, Justice, Policing and Security. Professor Wortley has also served as Research Director for several government commissions including the Ontario Government’s Roots of Youth Violence Inquiry. In 2017 Professor Wortley worked with Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate to develop standards and guidelines for the collection and dissemination of race-based data within the public sector. Professor Wortley has recently led two major investigation into possible racial bias within policing for both the Nova Scotia and Ontario Human Rights Commissions. He, along with Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, is currently heading an investigation into racial bias within the Toronto Transit Commission and an investigation into police use of force in Canada.


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