Troubling encounters with police fuel fear, distrust among some groups

·5 min read
Ottawa police patrol the ByWard Market in 2020. A new report titled Troubling Encounters: Ottawa Residents' Experiences of Policing paints a grim picture of the relationship between police in Ottawa and members of the city's racialized and marginalized communities. (Stéphane Beaudoin/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa police patrol the ByWard Market in 2020. A new report titled Troubling Encounters: Ottawa Residents' Experiences of Policing paints a grim picture of the relationship between police in Ottawa and members of the city's racialized and marginalized communities. (Stéphane Beaudoin/CBC - image credit)

Jessy was parked outside his Overbrook home eating poutine when the Ottawa police officer tapped on the window of his rented Jeep Wrangler.

The officer, who had tailed the high-end vehicle for several blocks, told Jessy he'd rolled through a stop sign.

But Jessy, 28, who is Black, suspects the officer had other reasons for following him home instead of stopping him at the scene of the alleged driving infraction.

"He followed me all the way back [home] because he wanted to see who I was and where I was going," the IT worker said. CBC has agreed to withhold Jessy's last name because he fears repercussions for speaking out.

Those are the individuals that have to be listened to, and I'm afraid that's not what's happening. - Chris Bruckert, U of O professor and report co-author

Jessy said he's also routinely singled out by police for jaywalking.

"I wasn't the only one who was doing it, but I'm the only one who was stopped," he said. "It has led me to have a lot of bad experiences with officers."

A new report from researchers at the University of Ottawa suggests Jessy's experience is common among "disproportionately policed communities," including racialized and otherwise marginalized groups.

Between March 2019 and February 2021, the researchers collected 251 accounts of encounters with police that occurred in the previous year.

While a handful involved other police forces that patrol the capital, the vast majority of the encounters involved members of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS).

David Richard/Radio-Canada
David Richard/Radio-Canada

A grim picture

According to the researchers, the stories contained in the report paint a grim picture of the relationship between police in Ottawa and some of the people they're meant to serve and protect.

The anecdotes include claims of racial profiling, random demands to produce identification, rude or derogatory comments, and other bully tactics by police.

"We kept hearing other stories from different community members, other stories that might not have made it to the media about troubling encounters, about difficult relationships," the report's co-author David Moffette, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

"We thought that it would be important to document these stories, to share these stories."

The anonymous accounts include this excerpt from an Inuk man who was approached by a police officer for drinking beer in a park.

"He actually called us 'drunken Indians.' When I told him we were not 'Indians' but [Inuit] he thought I was being a 'smart ass' and said he was going to arrest me."

Brian Morris/CBC
Brian Morris/CBC

In another account, a young woman described by researchers as Middle Eastern recounts being pulled over while driving with her father.

"The male officer told my dad to 'shut it' when my dad tried to explain it's his fault, then proceeded to lecture me about freedom and about if I want to do something I shouldn't always ask for my father's approval. In front of my dad, he told me, 'This man can't control your life,' assuming that my dad is, because of my [hijab]."

Deep lack of trust

The report, which was published in six languages including Arabic, Somali and Chinese, also reveals a profound lack of trust in police among participants, especially among those who identify as economically disadvantaged.

Co-author Chris Bruckert, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said many of those people carry the encounters with them for a long time after.

"Anxiety, depression, fear, feeling unsafe because they've had an encounter with the police, avoiding areas — these kinds of consequences we don't often talk about, but they're very, very real and significant. So I think we need to think about those."

The report doesn't claim to reflect the experience of the wider population, but in a way that's the point: while many residents will go their whole lives without a negative run-in with a police officer, members of certain communities report experiencing such incidents frequently.

"The focus was very much on racialized, Indigenous and socially marginalized individuals, so it was very much a targeted recruitment," Bruckert said.

"It makes sense, because if you're trying to document encounters, you want to document encounters by people who have historically had a problematic relationship with the police."

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Good intentions, little change

Bruckert said the idea to start collecting those stories arose as the city was reeling from the death of Abdirahman Abdi and as debate raged over the practice of "carding" or street checks by police.

"I think this is perhaps the saddest thing. We've been having this conversation now at least six years, probably longer, and we hear promises and there's good intentions, but in the end not much changes," Bruckert said.

CBC News asked the OPS if it had received the report and wished to comment, but did not receive a response.

While the aim of the report isn't to recommend specific reforms, Bruckert said it's vital that the communities that are affected be directly involved in finding a path forward.

"Solutions have to come from the communities that are most seriously impacted," she said. "Those are the individuals that have to be listened to, and I'm afraid that's not what's happening, and until that happens we won't have meaningful change."

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