Black and Indigenous people have been "grossly overrepresented" in Toronto transit enforcement incidents for much of the last decade, a new report finds — and when it comes to why, racial bias cannot be ruled out.
That's the conclusion of an independent review by University of Toronto researchers Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Scot Wortley, commissioned by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to identify racial disparities in its enforcement, what's behind them and to identify appropriate measures for change.
"The findings further support the critical need for the TTC's ongoing work to identify, prevent and address racism, anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, in the workplace and in the delivery of services, and to build trust with Black, Indigenous and racialized communities," the transit agency's chief diversity and cultural officer, Keisha Campbell, said in a report Wednesday.
The review — believed to be the first of its kind for the agency — examined data from 121,819 enforcement incidents that took place 2008 to 2018. Racial data was missing for 28.7 per cent of incidents, resulting in a final sample of nearly 87,000 incidents.
Key among the findings: Black and Indigenous riders were more likely than white riders to be formally charged or cautioned by TTC fare inspectors and special constables in enforcement incidents, whether they be on transit routes, locations and stations, the review found.
Black and Indigenous males were particularly over-represented.
Despite making up 8.8 per cent of the total population of Toronto, Black people accounted for 19.2 percent of total enforcement incidents. Indigenous people, who comprise less than one percent of the population, accounted for three per cent of the total incidents.
WATCH | Racial bias may factor into TTC enforcement incidents disproportionately targeting Black, Indigenous people:
The findings don't come as a shock to Caitlin Kasper, a senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.
"We see this type of discrimination for Indigenous people, throughout many institutions and agencies and organizations, whether or not they are part of first-hand government systems, or whether or their agencies that are being funded by the government and used for public purposes," she said.
"The fact that Indigenous people encounter enforcement officers and other type of personnel from the TTC, and do experience discrimination as a result of those encounters, is not surprising."
Growing gap in racial data
The review follows a 2019 city ombudsman's report that found the TTC's probe into the arrest of 19-year-old Reece Maxwell-Crawford, a Black man tackled and pinned by three fare-inspectors to the ground on a streetcar platform in 2018, to be lacking in transparency. The TTC says the review also stemmed from articles published by the Toronto Star raising concerns that racialized customers were being disproportionately targeted by the agency.
Maxwell-Crawford's lawyer, Cory Wanless, told CBC News after the incident the fare inspectors "didn't see him as a human being, but rather it was just about the colour of his skin." The TTC ultimately apologized for the incident, settling a lawsuit filed by Maxwell-Crawford, and vowed to "do better."
But while the review found racial disparities appear to have declined "somewhat" over the 11-year study period, it also found that decline was accompanied by an increase in missing racial data — in other words: for a growing number of incidents, the TTC simply doesn't know who is being stopped.
"The size of the observed racial disparities are, at a minimum, consistent with allegations of racial bias," the researchers conclude, though they note that other explanations must also considered.
For example, some might point out census estimates of commuting populations don't accurately reflect the characteristics of TTC riders and that therefore the enforcement rates in the review might be somewhat inflated.
"Others might argue that racial differences in TTC enforcement rates reflect racial differences in offending behaviour," it notes.
"We know that poverty is not equally distributed across racial groups in our society and city and that certain groups are more likely to experience poverty and mental illness and homelessness. And those would undoubtedly drive behaviour," Owusu-Bempah told CBC News.
Cannot dismiss possibility of bias, researchers say
"However, we cannot, at this time, dismiss the possibility that bias — conscious, unconscious and systemic – has contributed significantly to the gross racial disparities observed in the TTC enforcement data," the review says.
Racial bias might, for example, mean Black and Indigenous riders are watched more closely than riders of other backgrounds. That closer surveillance would then make them more likely to be caught for violations, even if white riders engage in the same behaviours, the researchers say.
The review explores the possibility of increased training and the impact of possibly equipping transit inspectors with body-worn cameras, noting perceived benefits like improved transparency and evidence collection. But it also highlights concerns about officers' discretion in when to turn cameras on or off, blind spots, questions about privacy and access to footage that limit the benefits of bodycams.
For now, the researchers' recommendations include developing policies and standards to ensure fairness and equity in fare inspection.
The researchers also recommend removing fare inspectors' option to issue verbal warnings, arguing there isn't always a paper-trail when warnings are given, and hence no way to tell what groups have benefited from being let off without a formal charge.
"Just because the verbal warning option is gone, does not mean the individual would necessarily be ticketed. What we're suggesting is that they receive a formal caution, which is simply written documentation ... that they had violated that policy," Owusu-Bempah said.
For its part, the TTC says it has "already begun" to make changes based on the review, including working on a "culture change" within its revenue protection and special constable departments, making changes to training for fare inspectors and developing an anti-racism policy.
"The TTC received the report late last year and has taken the information to heart," the agency's chief diversity and cultural officer said Wednesday.
The researchers' next steps will include consulting with leaders and stakeholders from Black, Indigenous and racial minority communities, holding townhalls to hear from TTC customers, surveying riders and staff, as well as reviewing how other transit agencies have approached issues of race.
The final report will, they say, will include a series of final recommendations around race-based data collection and "eliminating bias" from TTC enforcement actions.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.