Ottawa police officers have disproportionately used force against people they believed were Black, Indigenous or Middle Eastern, according to a report covering the first year that race-based data was collected.
The findings from 2020 were presented Thursday afternoon to a meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board's policy and governance committee.
Of the roughly 220,000 times that year where Ottawa police officers were dispatched to a scene, force was used on 348 occasions, according to Thursday's report.
Black people were 4.8 times more likely than expected to be on the receiving end, said Les Jacobs and Lorne Foster, the two York University human rights experts who collected and analyzed the data.
Middle Eastern people were 2.4 times more likely, they said, while Indigenous people were also subjected to forceful interactions with officers at a higher rate — although overall, the number of those latter interactions was quite low.
Ontario police forces have only been required to collect race-based data around use of force since 2020, when the province made that reporting mandatory.
"The data is consistent across the province, across the country," said Steve Bell, interim chief for the Ottawa Police Service (OPS), at Thursday's meeting.
"Our position on it is that's not good enough. We need to improve the outcomes. We need to improve our service — particularly to marginalized, racialized and Indigenous communities."
One of the challenges, however, is that simply implementing new and improved training has had mixed results when it comes to eliminating implicit bias around race, the researchers told the committee.
"As a police officer on duty, in that professional role, you actually have to reflect on what the biases are that you're bringing," Jacobs said. "That's a [big] step forward."
Reflects traffic stop findings
The data echoes another larger study the York University researchers did for Ottawa police in 2019, one that found Black and Middle Eastern drivers were stopped much more often than the city's demographics would suggest.
Bell said the OPS plans to take several steps based on Thursday's report, including working to ensure systemic bias around race is "screened out at the 911 intake level" and not "transmitted through the system."
The force also hopes to launch a use-of-force "working group" by this September, Bell said, involving both OPS members and people from the community. It would drill down to figure out what caused police interactions to escalate, he said, and figure out what biases were at play.
"We've identified through two different datasets that there is disproportional policing, disproportional responses," said Bell after the meeting.
"We know we need to do a better job of collecting more fulsome data so we can get a better picture of what's driving [it]."
'The reality of being Black'
The report's findings aren't especially shocking given what was found in the previous traffic stop study, said César Ndema-Moussa, president of advocacy group Roots and Culture Canada.
"As a Black person, as a community leader and activist, this is what we've been talking about for so long," said Ndema-Moussa. "For so long all over the western world, and truly over the world, [this has been] the reality of being Black. So no, I am not surprised."
While the 911 initiative is a good step, it alone can't address how deeply embedded those sorts of biases are in western culture, Ndema-Moussa said.
The report goes to the next full meeting of the police board later this month.