Halifax police chief Jean-Michel Blais faced tough questions Thursday evening over the use of "street checks", a policing technique that has disproportionately targeted the black community.
In a panel discussion at the Halifax North Memorial Library, Blais admitted black people are over-represented in street checks and said there is mistrust between the police and the black community. He committed to changing that, but some in the audience left feeling disappointed with the answers.
"A lot of people raised the issue that we have to look at the structural issues," said Isaac Saney, a professor at Dalhousie University. But Saaney suggested police also need to take immediate action.
"If we can do some fundamental reforms, do some simple reforms in the policing area, democratic control of the police, and for them to actually carry on statistics gathering that's not based on a model that necessarily assumes that the black community is more crime-ridden than other areas."
Legal advice for street checks
The panel was organized by law students from Dalhousie's Legal Aid service to help people understand their rights during a street check. The organizers also hoped to show police some of the experiences of the black community, said third-year student Angela Simmonds.
"I think it's important that it is community based. That he also — and not just Chief Blais, but their organization — also hears about how their policy of street checks affects marginalized communities, and specifically African Nova Scotian communities," she said.
In January, a CBC News investigation looked at 11 years of data from the Halifax Regional Police. It found black people are three times more likely to be stopped for a street check than white people.
After those numbers were released the police service said it would analyze the data to see if street checks are effective. Police commissioner Sylvia Parris called for a pause on collecting street checks while that analysis is done.
'Let that one go'
"We don't know that it does anything substantive, that it's worth kind of holding on to," she said Thursday. "So given that fact, and given the reality about the impact, and given we have other ways of investigating criminality, [we should] let that one go."
Halifax police have said street checks are useful and so they will continue. Police analyst Christopher Giacomantonio has been asked to examine the data.
The level of interest in street checks has been so high that the United African Canadian Women's Association is planning a similar forum for later this spring.