Tracking the race of people carded by Saskatoon police could lead to false data, police chief says

Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper says his officers are unlikely to begin recording the race of people they approach for contact interviews.

"Practically speaking, it's difficult to do that," Cooper said Friday.

"We know that people and agencies that have tried to do that get a lot of inaccurate data because it relies on the officer's description and perception of race, and that's often inaccurate."

Cooper was responding to a tersely worded recommendation from a University of Saskatchewan law professor.

Glen Luther, whose expertise includes Indigenous peoples and criminal law, emailed the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners last month about his concerns regarding contact interviews, also known as street checks and carding.

"Indigenous peoples may well feel that the police engage too often with them," Luther wrote, adding that the Saskatoon Police Service must start tracking the race of people approached for interviews on the street.

Lise Ouangari

Doing so would keep the police force accountable to the commission and protect against the police force's potentially, and disproportionately, approaching Indigenous people versus non-Indigenous people, Luther explained in his letter and in a further email to CBC News.

The current policy of not tracking race "simply allows the numbers of marginalized people stopped by police to remain invisible to you, the body tasked with overseeing the police service," Luther wrote.

Looking for policy that's 'not biased'

Cooper said there's nothing in the provincial policy on contact interviews, released last June, that would preclude the data collection.

But while collecting that information sounds "in theory like a great way to audit" the police service, Cooper said the service will likely "look for other ways to audit our application of contact interviews to make sure that we're applying it in a way that's not biased in the community."

Carolanne Inglis-McQuay, a civilian member of the police commission, pointed out the potential awkwardness of asking someone about their race.

"We can imagine that the probing question of … asking about race is very sensitive," she said.

"I'm not an expert. I would never myself purport to identify anyone as a particular ethnicity or race."

Don Somers/CBC

The Saskatoon Police Service is still developing its own policy on contact interviews, following the release of the provincial policy by the Saskatchewan Police Commission last summer.

That provincial policy said that visible minorities should not be targeted. Commission members outlined situations in which street checks might be done: when officers suspect someone may be harming themselves or when someone is in an industrial area late at night.

Luther says the policy as a whole is "unconstitutional and unwise." He's calling on the Saskatoon Police Service to ensure its officers tell people they have the right to say nothing, and the right to a lawyer, when approached during a street check.

"This policy is just that, a policy. It is not law and cannot override the rights of community members," he wrote.

Cooper said training on how to carry out the policy is in the planning stage.

A public consultation session partly aimed at gathering feedback on street checks is planned for Oct. 9 at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market.

With files from Lise Ouangari