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New Ottawa police chief vows vigilance on racial bias, discrimination


November 26, 2019
By Jim Bronskill

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OTTAWA (CP) – New traffic-stop data and the results of a diversity audit show more steps are needed to ensure bias-free law enforcement in the nation’s capital, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly says.

Sloly, who became the city’s top cop late last month, told a news conference Wednesday the police force is committed to doing all it can to address community and member concerns about discrimination.

A new report examining more than 96,000 traffic stops by Ottawa police from 2015 to 2018, a follow-up to earlier research, shows Middle Eastern and black drivers continued to experience disproportionately high incidences of being pulled over.

There were significant reductions since 2013 in the incidences of Ottawa police traffic stops for two subgroups, Middle Eastern and black males aged 16 to 24.

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But even so, in 2017-18, young male Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 8.7 times more than one would expect based on their proportion in the motorist population, while young male black drivers were pulled over 6.7 times more than expected.

However, the total number of people stopped for traffic violations by the city’s police declined by 35 per cent from 2013 to 2018. The drop is significant because consultations several years ago revealed that members of visible minorities felt they were subject to excessive scrutiny by officers, exemplified by frequent roadway stops, the researchers said.

The separate diversity audit, conducted by consultants Graybridge Malkam and looking at the Ottawa police as a workforce, concluded that while the Ottawa force is making some progress, there is still work to do in areas including leadership, policy, promotion processes and community policing.

The diversity audit noted systemic barriers to the recruitment and advancement of people with diverse backgrounds. It said many Ottawa police members do not see their workplace as respectful or inclusive. In particular, people with disabilities, women and racial minorities have a more negative experience. Supervisors are not seen as holding people accountable for inappropriate comments or behaviour.

The research findings come as police forces across Canada try to be more reflective of the communities they serve and recognize the fact racial minorities, including Indigenous people, are often more likely to come into contact with officers.

Just this week, Halifax’s police chief promised a detailed apology for racism built into “street checks,” the practice of compiling databases of people’s travels and associations from notes taken by police just stopping them on the street and asking for identification. Montreal’s city council approved a non-binding motion asking police to stop doing them.

The Ottawa police force’s ongoing effort with York University to collect and analyze traffic-stop data began in 2013, after a settlement agreement between the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ottawa Police Services Board. An 18-year-old man, Chad Aiken, complained that he was targeted for a traffic stop because he is black.

“We want to get to zero instances of racism and discrimination in policing, in any aspect of public life,” said the Jamaican-born Sloly, a person of colour who served 27 years with the Toronto police.

“So we should all have that sense of fierce urgency. Not enough is being done, it’s not being done fast enough and it’s not being done well enough.”

Sloly said one reason he signed on to lead the Ottawa force was its reputation as a leader in equity, diversity and inclusion. He noted the two reports were released publicly shortly after they were finished, demonstrating transparency.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen any other organization do this much, quite frankly, and with as much risk associated to it. People have to have a level of persistence to keep pushing us but they have to have a level of patience to let us get the job done,” he said.

“So this is going to be a gradual process, incremental, but we will be insistent that we make progress every day, every week, every month and every year.”

Godlove Ngwafusi of the African Canadian Association of Ottawa welcomed the chief’s pledge to be open and work with the community.

“It’s a fresh breath of air and we really welcome that kind of thing. I’ve made it very clear to my friends, the officers here, that we are not the enemy, and they are not the enemy. We need to work together,” he said.

“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that we achieve what they have promised to do.”