When it comes to anti-Black racism in Canadian policing, we don’t have an information gap, we have a police accountability gap. I’m reminded of this as I review some of the findings of two significant reports released jointly in August by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, with news channels in the background broadcasting yet another police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Wisconsin.
A Disparate Impact is the second interim report to come out of the commission’s inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police (the first report, A Collective Impact, was released in 2018). It includes two expert reports from criminologist Scot Wortley, who analyzed police data from 2013 to 2017 to uncover systemic racial disparity in arrests and charges and in the use of police violence on Black people.
The reports note that while Black people only make up 8.8% of Toronto’s population, they account for about one-third (32%) of all the charges in the charge dataset while White people and other racialized groups were underrepresented. Black people also made up 38% of cannabis charges despite conviction rates and many studies showing that Black people use cannabis at similar rates to White people.
Wortley further found that Black people were involved in a quarter (25%) of all Special Investigations Unit cases resulting in death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault—an overrepresentation that cannot be explained by factors such as patrol zones in low-crime and high-crime neighbourhoods, violent crime rates and/or average income. And Black people were more likely to be involved in use-of-force cases where police stopped and questioned someone (“proactive” policing) than in cases where police responded to a call for assistance (“reactive” policing).
For Black communities and their allies, these findings confirm what we’ve known for decades: anti-Blackness pervades policing. While our policing and justice systems need to do much better to institutionalize the collection and public reporting of race-based disaggregated data, since at least the late 1980s there have been several significant reports highlighting systemic anti-Black racism in Canadian police services.
After Toronto police shot and killed Lester Donaldson in his rooming house in 1988, the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) mobilized Toronto’s Black communities in protest. These actions were equally a response to the lack of accountability for the Toronto police killings of Buddy Evans in 1978 and Albert Johnson in 1979, as well as the generalized violent mistreatment of Black Torontonians by Toronto police over the course of a decade.
The public agitations ultimately led to the 1988 establishment of the Toronto Race Relations and Policing Task Force. In 1989, a report of the task force included recommendations for increasing accountability, transparency and equity in policing, all in response to concerns of racism experienced by Black Torontonians. This was a watershed moment, as it ultimately led to the passage of the Police Services Act, which established the Special Investigations Unit as a civilian oversight body.
Despite these reforms, Black civilians in Ontario continued to be subjected to high rates of police use of lethal force. As such, the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System was established in 1992, this time in response to the police killing of Raymond Lawrence, a 22-year-old Black man. The commission’s final report in 1995 provided further evidence of systemic anti-Black racism in policing and made recommendations similar to those from the earlier task force.
More recently there was the 2017 report of the Independent Police Oversight Review by Justice Michael Tulloch. Some of the important recommendations from this report were reflected in the Ontario government’s latest policing legislation, the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act, though the most progressive recommendations, such as a complete overhaul of police oversight structures, were ignored.
Despite these and several other critical reports on police violence, including a damning CBC expose on the issue in 2017, Black Torontonians and Black Canadians remain disproportionately impacted in incidents of racial profiling, police contact (carding, arrests, detentions, searches) and police use of force, especially lethal force. It’s important to note that, since the late 1970s, no police officer in Canada has ever served time in jail for killing a Black civilian.
It’s time Canada held a commission of inquiry into the policing of Black and Indigenous people, as called for by lawyer Julian Falconer following the outcome of the trial of off-duty police officer Michael Theriault and his brother, Christian. While Christian was acquitted of all charges, Michael was found guilty of assaulting a Black youth named Dafonte Miller. Perhaps a commission may finally usher in the sweeping and overdue police reforms we desperately need to help close the police accountability gap that has claimed far too many Black lives in our country.
Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator whose column, Colour-coded Justice, appears regularly in the CCPA Monitor. He wishes to disclose that he used to work for Julian Falconer and previously represented Dafonte Miller in a legal capacity.