Racial Profiling and Policing: To Serve and Protect Whom?

MPP candidate Rebecca Charles breaks down some of the highlights of the Max Bell School's Racial Profiling in Policing conference.

When I began studying racial profiling at the Max Bell School, I never thought that a subject in a graduate studies program would hit so close to home or evoke so much emotion.

As a Black woman raising a Black son, I worry about the current situation of racial profiling in Canada. I ask myself: Are Black people safe? What is being done to better protect us? Is my son going to be safe in such a society? Will he be the next George Floyd? What needs to be done to bring reform?

On March 25, 2021, the Max Bell School of Public Policy held a conference on Racial Profiling in Policing to propose innovative policy solutions and encourage community trust between the police and racialized communities, specifically Black and Indigenous people. During the event, victims of racial profiling were given the opportunity to speak out and tell their stories. The first session, brilliantly named “From Victims to Victors: First-Hand Encounters with Racial Profiling,” highlighted the voices of two victims of racial profiling, Joel DeBellefeuille and Majiza Philip. Both speakers engaged us with the reality of racial profiling.

Police brutality, hate crimes, and fear of the other have been permanent features of our society for decades. The death of George Floyd has made the issue an urgent one in 2021. Recent Supreme Court decisions in Canada, such as R v Le, have highlighted the phenomenon of over-policing in certain communities. Yet even after this decision, mistaken arrests such as that of a black teen recently in Toronto are still regular occurrences. According to an independent report in 2019, Montreal´s racialized minorities are more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts by police officers. Extensive research has demonstrated that discriminatory profiling has been a persistent social evil, disproportionately affecting Indigenous, Black, and racialized peoples. However, there is still no law in Canadian policing that specifically targets or bans arbitrary stops and similar practices based on conventional stereotypes and biases.

The conference also featured community organizations, scholars, and academics who discussed their views, including strategic solutions to systemic and individual racism problems. It was recognized that police are a significant part of the problem and also potentially part of the solution. Fady Dagher, Director of police services of the City of Longueil, presented a culture of change program. This strategic action aims to improve police officers’ public service, efficiency, and most importantly, decrease the tendency to use racial profiling through training, immersion programs, and other tools.

But it was the second panel that encouraged evidence-based development of public policy to diminish the number of victims and add to the knowledge required to reform their culture. The panel titled, “Why Aren’t We There Yet: Four Decades of Evidence,” featured Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone, Professor Scot Wortley, and Professor Kanika Samuels-Wortley, who discussed their research on racial profiling and highlighted the meager or almost absent efforts so far to create real accountability. They outlined the obstacles that are preventing us as a civilized society from moving forward to combat racial profiling and recommended effective legislation, disaggregated data collection and dissemination, and human rights-based approaches as possible solutions.

Youth and Policing: A Systemic Problem

Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone, a postdoctoral scholar of Ethnic, Immigration, and Pluralism Studies, has undertaken qualitative studies mainly focused on the political and organizational sources of racial profiling and policing. She argues that it is more productive to think of racial profiling as the result of conscious policies than of individual police bias.

Answering the question, “Why aren’t we there yet?," Livingstone shared the findings of a participatory action investigation from 2015 to 2018. The findings indicated that ineffective policies encourage police officers to think that Black youth need coercive attention and that mere education and training will not get us where we need to go. In her report on how racial profiling by Montreal police is widespread and systemic in Saint-Michel, Livingstone explains that young people are more targeted by police forces in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, stating that “they suffer from harassment, threats, racial slurs and violence at the hands of police.” Based on interviews with 48 young people aged 15 to 28 living in low-income neighborhoods, the report demonstrated that black youth are systemically and significantly subject to racial profiling.

While a great deal needs to be done, change is possible. Based on her report, Livingstone noted that poorly developed policies can worsen an already bad situation, as was seen in the case of Saint-Michel. Training programs can effectively mitigate the harm from poorly developed policies, however, they need to be done correctly, regularly, and with rigorous testing. Dr. Livingstone also argues that “racial profiling is first and foremost, a political problem; and that there are biases built into our institutions and into our society that encourage and promote systemic and individual discrimination and stereotyping.” This emphasizes that although racial profiling may have individual dimensions, we must address institutional and societal constructions to fight the complexity of these problems.

Decades of quantitative and qualitative data on racial profiling

Scot Wortley has spent almost thirty years researching racial discrimination in the Canadian criminal justice system, focusing on racial profiling. A good deal of evidence has emerged, both qualitatively from the voices of Indigenous and Black people and quantitatively from surveys and official police data.

Professor Wortley’s research shows that there has been little in the way of improvement over the years.

The number of police stops and checks of Black people has risen sharply from 17 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 2019. Professor Wortley does not believe that anti-bias training is the primary solution because it is often a public relations gesture and rarely involves accountability or demonstrated competency. In his view, the police must develop training that officers take seriously and for which they must demonstrate competence through examinations.

I share his view and note that many of his observations dovetail with the work done by Dr. Livingstone.

Trusting the Police?

Professor Kanika Samuels-Wortley was the third panelist and focused on three main insights found through her research: Black people have low trust in the institution, racially-biased policing behaviors contribute to racial disparities, and police discretion impacts other decision making.

For example, she elaborated on studies that examine the effects of negative police interactions. She shared the common theme amongst the findings: “Black people have low trust in the institution meant to serve and protect them.” Her work also reveals that racially biased policing behaviors and practices contribute to racial disparities in our justice system. Specifically, Professor Samuels-Wortley’s research demonstrates concerns over police discretion and its impact on other decision-making. She suggested more public transparency from police services so that stops and other interactions are documented and the impacts of initiatives that decrease public trust are evaluated. This requires access to and dissemination of race-based data collection.

Personal reflections

Policing and racial profiling are well studied but not well known. The public needs to pay more attention to the impacts and the data. We don’t need more symbolic and ceremonial actions in the fight against racism and racial profiling.

It is time we recognize that this is a real problem that affects racialized communities through physical and mental harm. These factors create a lack of trust and deep-rooted hostility towards the police. As a result, Black people are traumatized, broken, stigmatized, and their fundamental human rights to life, liberty, and security are violated. Racial profiling contravenes ours laws and international human rights law. What we need is innovative legislation, but as academic experts highlight, there is a clear lack of political will to eliminate racial profiling in policing.

What are we doing about it? Are we waiting for more cases of wrongful death perpetuated by police officers? How do we make our voices louder to influence and stimulate political action in the matter?

I am more than a Black single mother. I am a woman committed to her community, a student in a Master of Public Policy program, a philanthropist who works in humanitarian aid, and someone who makes no distinctions of race, color, origin, religion, or ethnicity. I am a good Canadian citizen. However, when I go down the street and see a police car, when I drive on the highway and cross a police car or a flare, my heart skips a beat. My whole body reacts.

I do not feel safe in the presence of a service that supposedly exists to protect me, to protect all of us. Yet, I know that a police officer who sees me may see me as a threat based on my skin colour. Black is a colour that many have wrongly and inaccurately associated with trouble. In 2021, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. It is enough.

Future generations need to fight the good fight. We cannot tolerate racial profiling in policing. As the anti-profiling activist and human rights victor, Joel DeBellefeuille said: “We all bleed the same blood.”


Indigenous, black people more likely to be stopped by Montreal police: report | Globalnews.ca

MPP Policy Case Study: Racial and Social Profiling | Max Bell School of Public Policy

Mistaken arrest of Black teen a case of racial profiling, family says | CBC News

Racial Profiling and human rights (ohrc.on.ca)

Racial profiling by Montreal police 'widespread and systemic' in Saint-Michel, report says | CBC News

Rebecca CharlesRebecca Charles

Max Bell School MPP candidate

When they ask me about who I am, the first answer that comes to my mind is that I am a single mother, an involved woman who wants to contribute to the world and makes it a better place. In 2014, after officially moving to Canada, my first reflex was to go back to school, when I was six months pregnant. I enrolled in International Studies at the University of Montreal, a place where I was actively involved on campus. I was the Vice-President of a campus association for two years, organizing conferences, cultural activities, and more for the student community.

When I lived in Rigaud, I was the President of ''Les Amis de la Culture de Rigaud," where, for two years, I organized workshops and events such as the city's annual Christmas Market. Having served as a volunteer for the Canadian Red Cross since 2017, I decided to take on a full-time role at the organization after graduating from undergraduate studies. Today, as a Case Manager, I work with victims of flooding; this experience has revealed to me a flawed system rife with policy application failures. I hope to gain the tools necessary to better understand how policy is applied and to provide me with ideas for correcting systemic failings. I am also interested in issues of racism and gender equality.


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