Toronto police board drafts 'historic' policy for collecting race-based data

As early as next year, Toronto police could start tracking and reporting the races of individuals involved in certain encounters with officers, if a "historic" new policy drafted for Canada's largest force is approved.

But the move is drawing both praise and calls for caution. 

Slated for discussion at the next Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Sept. 19, the board's draft policy aims to improve "transparency and accountability."

"It's a huge step forward," said Paul Bailey, an urban planner and community advocate from Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood. "The community has been asking for disaggregated, race-based data for 30 years."   

The draft policy also follows a key recommendation from a sweeping 2018 interim report on race and policing from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). The report found a black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by police.

"This would be a historic moment if the board passes this policy," said Renu Mandhane, the OHRC's chief commissioner. "It would make the Toronto police a national leader in terms of the scope of the data being collected."

The approach would also bring the city in line with multiple U.S. police forces when it comes to race-based data collection, including New York, Boston and Los Angeles, she added.

If approved, the policy would require Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders to establish a procedure for collecting, analyzing and publicly reporting race-based data, with a goal of rolling out a first phase — focused only on use-of-force reports — by this January.

Without data, people aren't 'believed'

The procedure would initially be based on officer observations of someone's race, while phasing-in self-reporting from people involved in police encounters.

Eventually, the board hopes race-based data would be collected by Toronto police in all stops, searches and interactions involving the use of force, charges, apprehensions and arrests, the policy notes.

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Bailey, who recalls being stopped many times by police while growing up, said if those experiences are merely anecdotal among members of Toronto's black community, "we're often not believed."

But the lifelong impact of those interactions is real, he said.

"It starts to be part of life, how you carry on. It wasn't until I went to other parts of the city that I understood people in other parts of the cities, other communities, aren't treated how young black men are."

While he backs the use of race-based data, Bailey questioned how Toronto police would use and publicize the information — and stressed the need for more police training to ensure there's accountability from the force.

Mayor hopes to 'root out' racism

Scot Wortley, a longtime researcher on the impact of race-based data and a professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, also questioned whether officers would ever be disciplined for misreporting race-related data, suggesting not doing so would limit the data's usefulness in reducing racism.

Wortley conducted the data analysis for the 2018 interim OHRC report, which outlined how black people make up 8.8 per cent of Toronto's population, but were "grossly overrepresented" in investigations by the Special Investigations Unit, the provincial watchdog that handles police interactions involving serious injury or death.

The final version of the report is expected to include extensive internal data obtained from Toronto police, including lower-level use-of-force incidents and instances of carding. The OHRC expects to release those findings in 2020.

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When it comes to collecting race-based data in the future, Wortley worries "that it seems individual police services have to come up and develop their own policy."

Instead, he said, it would be more helpful to see one standard established across all police forces — not just Toronto — in order to create comparable, national data.

"At the end of the day, it is the details around what this will look like," said community advocate and lawyer Anthony Morgan, a training and development consultant in the City of Toronto's Confronting Anti-black Racism unit since late 2018.

At least for this city, the policy represents a "welcome step," Morgan said, but still prompts various concerns over how data is being collected, and the need to verify its quality and consistency.

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"They're going to be the first in the country to really roll this out, so it's incumbent upon them to ensure they get it right," Bailey stressed. "Because everyone's going to be following their lead."  

A spokesperson for Toronto police did not provide comment, but Mayor John Tory, a member of the board, said officers understand "the time has come" given the "erosion of trust" between police and the public.

"It's going to allow us to have a greater degree of accountability, but also to identify and root out elements of systemic racism and discrimination — and preserve the dignity of individuals and communities," he said.