Racism within Canadian police forces: What’s the evidence?

With a focus on the RCMP and Toronto police

Artwork by Author (2020)

Police brutality receives a lot of media attention. When the victim is Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour (i.e., BIPOC), race is often perceived as playing a role in how the police treated the target. However, unless overt racial language is used, it is difficult to know for sure whether the cop in that particular incident acted due to racial biases.

So what is the evidence that Canadian cops and police institutions are discriminating against people based on race? This article goes over:

Individual Racism refers to an individual’s racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviours and is “a form of racial discrimination that stems from conscious and unconscious, personal prejudice” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 329). Individual Racism is connected to/learned from broader socio-economic histories and processes and is supported and reinforced by systemic racism.

Systemic Racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary.

What do the public and police leaders believe?

Polls of Canadians found that:

Statements from police leaders

The RCMP Commissioner, although initially waffling on the subject, has agreed that systemic racism exists within the RCMP. Ottawa Police Services Chief has stated “individual and systemic racism exists in Canadian policing, in all Canadian institutions and in Canadian society as a whole.” The Toronto (now ex-)Police Chief has also made similar statements:

Racism exists in the service as it does elsewhere in society, so it’s logical that undercurrents flow through the organization.

There is no mystery to that; it’s built in everywhere […] We hire from the world, so of course the answer is yes; there’s nothing unique to that. — Mark Saunders

However, not all police leaders agree, for instance Alberta’s RCMP deputy commissioner has said he does not believe there is systemic racism within the RCMP.

Accounts from within the force

Three officers from within the Toronto police force have previously tried to sue the Toronto Police Service (TPS) for enabling a “toxic, racist and sexist culture”. Const. Firouzeh “Effy” Zarabi-Majd reports that:

“If you’re not white — it doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen or you’re an employee, you don’t have any rights. It’s systematic abuse” said an anonymous Iranian-Canadian Toronto Police officer whistleblower to the CBC Fifth Estate

A 31-year veteran of the force, Margorie Hudson, said “I didn’t understand what racism was until I joined the RCMP,” and is now filing a class-action lawsuit. Since coming forward, 80 other men and women have also come forward with similar allegations. Examples of racism she witnessed and experienced includes:

In support of her and others’ accounts, several private facebook groups for RCMP officers were discovered to have hundreds of racist and derogatory comments targeting Indigenous people. The RCMP aren’t new to class-action lawsuits and have had to settle for hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade due to various lawsuits alleging they enable a toxic workplace culture.

The Statistics

Canadian police services are not required to collect or release official statistics on use of force incidents making research on this subject sparse. Even less data is available on the race breakdown of these statistics.

In spite of these roadblocks, an Ontario Human Rights Commission did the onerous task of collecting this data by aggregating SIU data, police records, and photographs of the civilian targets (published in August 2020) and found the following about the TPS:

Black people “are subjected to a disproportionate burden of law enforcement in a way that is consistent with systemic racism and anti-Black racial bias.”

The charge rate for Black people was 3.9 times greater than for White people and 7.1 times greater than the rate for people from other racialized groups.

Although they represented only 8.8% of Toronto’s population in 2016 Census data, Black people represented 42.5% of people involved in obstruct justice charges and were 4.8 times more likely to be charged with obstruct justice offences than their representation in the general population would predict. By contrast, White people and people from other racialized groups were under-represented.

Black people were significantly overrepresented in SIU investigations of serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault relative to their representation in the general population. SIU data showed that Black people were over-represented in use of force cases (28.8%), shootings (36%), deadly encounters (61.5%) and deaths caused by police shootings (70%).

The lower-level use of force rate for Black people was five times greater than the rate for White people and 11 times greater than the rate for other racialized people.

When reading this, your next thought might be…

Do Black people just commit more crimes?

Historical racism has contributed to less generational wealth among Black people, and poverty is related to crime, so are Black people just committing more crimes?

In other words: Does systemic/historical racism explain these racial disparities?

No, not entirely: Systemic/historical racism likely partially explains these findings, but police’s individual racism also appears to play a role in the overrepresentation of Black people’s contact with the justice system:

The significant over-representation of Black people in SIU investigations and their gross over-representation in lower-level use of force incidents cannot be explained by factors such as patrol zones in low-crime and high-crime neighbourhoods, violent crime rates and/or average income. The over-representation remained constant and significant even after controlling for these factors, suggesting that race was a much stronger predictor of police use of force.

Black people represented 35.2% of people involved in “out-of-sight” driving charges (such as driving without valid insurance), which are charges that only arise after a stop has already taken place, suggesting other motives for the stop.

Black people represented 37.6% of people involved in cannabis charges, and were 4.3 times more likely to be charged with a cannabis possession offence despite conviction rates and many studies showing that Black people use cannabis at similar rates to White people.

Despite being charged at a disproportionately higher rate, Black people were overrepresented in cases that resulted in a withdrawal of charges; and their cases were also less likely to result in a conviction compared to cases involving White people.

White civilians involved in police use of force investigations were slightly more likely to have a previous criminal record (54.5%) than Black civilians (44.4%) or civilians from other racial backgrounds (33.3%).

Even now you may still be tempted to explain these stats by asking…

Are Black people more often armed or threatening towards police?

The short answer is no. Police more often seriously injured and killed Black people even though Black people were generally less violent and less lethally armed during these encounters.

In use of force cases: White people were 1.5 times more likely to threaten/assault the police (62% vs. 44%), whereas Black people were 1.6 times more likely to resist arrest (42% vs. 26%).

In police shooting cases: White people were 1.8 times more likely be armed with a firearm (20%) compared to Black people (11.1%). Conversely, Black people were 2.2 times more likely to be armed with a knife (44.4%) than White people (20%).

And when police shoot Black people, they end up killing them more often than when they shoot White people. Granted, the sample sizes for those statistics are small (N = 19), but they are consistent with the rest of the findings.

White people are more likely to survive TPS police shootings, even when they do possess a weapon and use that weapon to threaten or attack the police. White people were shot by TPS officers on 10 occasions [between 2013–2017]…White civilians survived four out of the six shooting cases (66.6%) in which they had threatened or attacked police officers with a gun. In the other four police shootings that involved White survivors, the civilian had either threatened (three cases) or attacked the police (one case) with another type of weapon. None of the White shooting victims were unarmed.

By contrast, the data suggest that Black civilians never survive police shootings in which they have threatened or attacked the police. Between 2013 and 2017, the TPS shot nine Black people. Seven of these shootings resulted in a fatality (77.8%). One of the Black shooting survivors was unarmed and the other had threatened a civilian with a knife. Only one Black shooting fatality involved a civilian firing a gun at police officers, two cases involved firearm threats against the police, two involved other weapons threats against the police, and two involved other weapons threats against civilians.

These findings suggest that the high police shooting death rate for Black civilians cannot be simply explained away by higher rates of gun or weapons use during police shooting incidents.

Why is racism a problem within Canadian police forces?

Historical context

In 1873, the RCMP (formerly known as the NWMP) was created to control Indigenous people and to help transfer Indigenous territory to the federal government. They did this through forcing Indigenous people onto reserves and not allowing them to leave. They justified this, in part, as a way to prevent Indigenous women from loitering, which they viewed as a threat to public safety. Métis have also reported that many communities were “destroyed by the RCMP […] some Métis Elders vividly recall the day their community was burned to the ground, and when people escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs.”

RCMP also enforced the Indian Act, which led them to forcibly take Indigenous children from their homes in order to place them in residential schools. These schools were created to assimilate Indigenous children into “Canadian” culture: the last one closed in 1996. There have been reports that thousands of children were abused and died while in the care of these schools.

The TPS used to have a dedicated “black organized crime squad”, which as its name implies, targeted its policing efforts on specifically Black people. This unit was also disbanded in 1996.

There have also been reports of “starlight tours” as far back as 1976, where Canadian police officers arrest Indigenous people for alleged drunkenness, disorderly conduct, or without cause and abandon them on the outskirts of town, sometimes without clothes, in winter leading some to freeze to death. There were public cases as recent as 2011 and 2012 of this still occurring.

Current situation

Although the police no longer overtly say their mandate is to target and control BIPOC, the statistics suggest they are still focusing disproportionality and unjustly on policing and harming BIPOC.

The problem isn’t getting better either, it’s getting worse. Fatal encounters involving police have risen over the past 20 years (population growth accounted for). These fatalities disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous people.

For example, in lethal use of force cases, Black over-representation has increased since 2000 in Toronto. Between 2000 and 2006, 47% of all lethal use of force cases involved Black people, in 2013–2017 it went up to 62%.

An external independent review of the RCMP in 2020 concluded that:

[…] toxic culture prevails in the RCMP. This culture encourages, or at least tolerates, misogynistic, racist and homophobic attitudes among many members of the RCMP.

The problem is systemic in nature and cannot be corrected solely by punishing a few ‘bad apples.’

A Human Rights Tribunal also concluded that TPS 23 Division had a poisoned work environment and that they had no reason to believe that this was limited to just this TPS Division.

What are police leaders doing about it?

When asked to give an example of what systemic racism looks like in the force, the RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki discussed how height can give officers advantages during physical tests:

“It’s an obstacle course, in there there’s a six foot mat that you have to do a broad jump, and when we put the lens on it and reviewed that physical requirements test, evidence told us that the average person can broad jump their height,” Lucki explained.

“So, of course, how many six foot people do we hire? And there are people in all different cultures that may not be six feet, including, there’s not a lot of women that are six feet tall, that would not be able to get through that exam, that type of test.”

How police policies may disproportionately affect certain races would qualify as systemic racism, but she is saying here that all “cultures” may be negatively affected by some RCMP policies, completely missing the point. This suggests Lucki was either being evasive or did not fully grasp what systemic racism means. Either way, this illustrates a lack of care about the problem, so it should come as no surprise that the RCMP and other Canadian police forces have stalled in addressing their issues with racism.

It is disturbing that yet another report has been commissioned when this exact review has already been done.

Ignoring the existing reports can only then be interpreted as a stall tactic to avoid putting the recommendations in place or an attempt to have a police insider redesign a model according to their wishes. — Prof. Andersen (who authored one of the research reports)

Summary

The available anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that both systemic and individual racism are problems within Canadian police forces. The Canadian police forces know this, but do not seem motivated to fix the problem. Racism is not the only issue among Canadian police forces, so is sexual violence, corruption, and misconduct among its leaders and officers.

We as citizens cannot hold police accountable because they have created a system where they are only accountable to themselves. The only way for us to demand for change is through pressure (activism, media attention, contacting your local MP) and electing politicians that are willing to tackle these issues.

So what happens when the public loses faith in the people tasked with keeping them and their city safe?

First, we ask for meaningful change. But if the police refuse to change—which is what they are currently doing—defunding and abolishing the police will be viewed as the only viable options. Then we can use these funds to build services that focus on helping all people in our communities.