Racial profiling is a touchy subject, yet the impact on the working relationship between minority communities and the police are dramatically impacted by even the slightest perception of racially motivated policing occurring. This impact can be deep and long lasting, as seen with Canada’s indigenous population who are still today grossly over-represented in our prison populations. Mistrust of the police creates even more community challenges, and has been linked to increases in crime and a reduction in community reporting. The challenge for officers is how to police high crime areas intelligently, without falling into the unethical practice of racial profiling.
Keywords: racial profiling, community relationships, policing, ethics, Canada, Edmonton
Racial Profiling; Police practices that exacerbate violence
Early this spring I had the great pleasure of being part of a community meeting with the Canadian Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould. The meeting was part of a local human rights movement, The Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights. Mahamad Accord, an advocate for the fostering a more positive relationship between the Edmonton Police and the coloured persons in Edmonton, attended this meeting. He spoke with great passion regarding the challenges black persons face in Edmonton, partially due to the racism they experience in both the general community and in their dealings with some of the police. Also in attendance were advocates for the human rights of indigenous persons, also speaking of their community’s experience with profiling. I disclose this as we spoke at length about the fear many Somali-Canadians and indigenous persons have regarding the police, due to their experiences past and present, right here in Edmonton. This conversation has greatly influenced my choice of topics.
Racial profiling, defined as “the use of a person’s race or ethnicity as a proxy for suspicion of … criminal activity or threat” (Dunn, 2016), is a touchy subject for both persons of colour who percieve themselves as being profiled, and the officers who are tasked with policing in high crime areas. While racial profiling is highly debated and studied from many angles, this paper does not seek to resolve the academic debate surrounding racial profiling but merely summarizes it to provide context. The the impact on the working relationship between marginalized communities of (real or perceived) racial profiling and the police is the main focus of this paper, as well as exploring the ethics of policing as it applies to this community problem.
Racial profiling has been passionately debated here in Canada and amongst criminology academics and employees in general. Part of the challenge in this debate is that it focuses on either proving or disproving empirical evidence that racial profiling is occurring (Kitossa, 2014). This is challenging because although researchers can use a variety of scientific means; from gathering statistics to analyzing arrest patterns; to establish that persons of colour are grossly overrepresented in ticketing, arrests, carding and prison populations (Kitossa 2014; Dunn, 2016), science cannot prove intention, or assign a morality to these findings. Racial profiling is subjective, requiring the perspective of those impacted by it to be defined, identified and addressed (Kitossa, 2014). According to Kitossa (2014), the prevailing arguments regarding racial profiling can be are:
- That there is no such thing as racial profiling
- That certain groups create situations that can seem like racial profiling, when in fact it is just police doing their jobs well.
- That it does not matter if racial profiling is happening, it is the perception of both the police and the communities impacted that are important
- That our Canadian systems are inherently racist, and therefore racial bias is just a part of policing.
For the intents and purposes of this paper, racial profiling is assumed to exist, but benefit of doubt as to the officer’s intentions is also granted. It is important to the discourse on racial profiling to understand that such profiling is very rarely linked to overt racism and/or bigotry, but instead occurs when an officer subconsciously makes choices based on racial stereotypes (Agarwal & Marcus, 2015). These choices are often justified by officers seemingly logical explanations, including:
1. That it was not the color of the person’s skin that attracted the attention of the officer, but the awareness of the type of activity that occurs in that neighbourhood (Dunn, 2016).
2. Street checks solve crimes and are conducted in high crime neighbourhoods where it just so happens more (insert ethnicity here) happen to congregate/live (Agarwal & Marcus, 2015; Dunn, 2016).
3. That they observed a specific behaviour or mannerism that, due to their experience and training, alerted them to a problem (Dunn, 2016).
Caldero & Crank (2011), throughout the textbook “Police ethics; The corruption of the noble cause” discuss these justifications at length. The authors explain that knowing at what point good policing becomes racial profiling is is difficult, and that difficulty is part of what enables noble-cause corruption in the first place. This, they note, is because racial profiling often occurs unconsciously, allowing officers to unknowingly make ‘value-based decisions’ as part of the noble cause of fighting crime. In the case of racial profiling, an officer’s attention is drawn to an individual due to their appearance, more specifically, their skin colour. The officer then begins to think creatively to develop probable cause: is this neighbourhood/area known for crime; is this person acting suspiciously; are they doing anything that is reason enough to justify my interacting with them. It is not a matter of the officer thinking “I hate people with green skin, so let’s find a reason to arrest this green skinned person” so much as it is a process in which the officer, without even consciously thinking about it, is recalling that this location is known to be host green skinned individuals who commit violent offences. This unconscious thought triggers the officer’s alertness, and he/she focusses on this potential danger, noting how the green skinned person seems nervous. When the officer approaches them, perhaps to “card” (ask to see identification) them, the officer believes they are acting out the duties of their position with impunity, when it may be that they, without even being aware of it, racially profiled an individual (Caldero & Krank, 2011; Gill, 2015).
Racial profiling has been deemed by the Supreme Court of Canada, in R. v. Brown, to be a violation of section 9 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, regardless of whether or not it is born of deliberate conscious acts, or unconsciously. The ruling in this case included an explanation that obtaining proof of racial profiling would by necessity mean drawing conclusions from circumstantial evidence, as indicated by academic research on the matter (Agarwal & Marcus, 2015). In R. v. Ward the Supreme Court rejected the notion that the officer must have acted in bad faith in order for damages to be awarded to a victim of racial profiling. This ruling has challenged the view that awarding Charter damages to racial profiling victims “interfere(s) with the government policy-making function” (Agarwal & Marcus, 2015).
Regardless of intention, racial profiling has a dramatic impact on community relationships between those being profiled and the police. This impact has been blamed for the lack of reporting by ethnic minorities and named as the cause of distrust between community and police (Giwa, James, Anucha & Schwartz, 2013). These sentiments were also expressed in several Edmonton news articles about racial tensions between police and persons of colour:
September 2015: Edmonton Police Services (EPS) were doing street checks, an activity often referred to as “carding” to the tune of 26,000 people a year. EPS denies racial motivation in carding, claiming that carding solves crimes. Lewis Cardinal, the vice-chair of the Aboriginal Commissioner for Human Rights and Justice noted that it was common to experience or hear of police stopping persons who are aboriginal without cause, sentiments that were repeated by immigrant outreach personnel (Huncar, September 2015).
February 2016: Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights began document human rights complaints on behalf of persons of colour. Examples include is a young woman who waited eleven hours for police to respond to her call to 911 after a man attacked her, and various persons of African descent who reported racial profiling based stops,carding, and persons of color reporting undue escalation of violence by police. Police inspector Dan Jones noted that while officers already receive cultural awareness training that he welcomes the opportunity to improve community relationships and address concerns (Huncar. February 2016).
March 2016: Mahamad Accord in quoted saying that, Edmonton residents of African descent are reporting racially motivated incidents with the EPS including carding, ticketing and ‘driving while black’. Police inspector Dan Jones responds saying that there is a division whose sole job is to ensure racial bias is not occurring, and that his officers are trained to be aware of bias. He also indicated that his office was prepared to act on recommendations that would hopefully be brought forth by those meeting to discuss these community problems at the Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights forum (Lazzarino, 2016).
March 2016: Hamza Tyme died from a gunshot wound. He was one of over half a dozen Somali-Canadians who had been murdered in Edmonton. Abdulhakm Moalimishak, who is the president of the Islamic centre in Ottawa was quoted as saying that the “law enforcement seems to just not really care”. Moalimishak stated that Somali-Canadian individuals were unwilling to speak to police, fearing that they too will become targets of violence and not trusting the police to take their statements or treat their concerns appropriately. He further suggested that the police recruit some officers from the Somali-Canadian community as a first step in relationship building, and that the city examine what it could do to address the poverty and community needs of the Somali-Canadians in need (Huncar, March 2016).
These articles are included only to underscore the importance of how, when police attention is directed at those who are marginalized, their perception of the police is tarnished. This in turn leads to barriers between police and the communities they are in serving (Gill, 2014). Gil (2014)explains that racial profiling can lead to officers actually forming a ‘skewed belief’ that certain races are more criminal than others; and that racial profiling “foster(s) social stigmatization” and indirectly causes it’s victims to suffer from negative view of self, anxiety, psychological harm and damages their view of the criminal justice system.
Caldera & Krank (2011) note that it is not racism that motivates officers to racially profile, but that their training both explicitly and implicitly supports these actions. These policies, in which officers are trained to use race in “the broader profile if it is a characteristic of a dangerous group” (Caldera & Krank, 2011), yet, “law enforcement’s use of racial profiling violates the Charter” (Gill, 2014). Using race as the initial indicator to card an individual, pull them over or detain them in any other manner has been resulting in complaints, and some of those complaints have resulted in court rulings that the police violated the charter (Gill, 2014; Caldera & Krank, 2011; Agarwal & Marcus, 2015).
The use of racial profiling, even when supported by policy, is a slippery slope, according to Caldera & Krank (2011), who argue that when assumptions are made linking race to criminal behaviour that this encourages a higher level of aggression in policing specific neighbourhoods which in turn will “develop a self-fulfilling prophecy,” increasing the likelihood of spotting wrongdoing, while allowing wrongdoing in other neighbourhoods to go unnoticed.
Conclusion and Future Study
Racial profiling is often born out of the best intentions, with police training encouraging the use of race when considering the profile of specific types of crime. This is problematic as it leads to skewed views of persons of specific ethnicities being criminals, which in turn encourages police to focus on this demographic to an unfair extent. When police attention is drawn for factors that include race or general appearance, detainment is a violation of the Charter, specifically section 9 which protects Canadians from unreasonable detainment. Aside from being unlawful, this conduct is unethical, as it is based on negative stereotypes of an entire race of persons, rather than based on that individual’s actions.
This type of profiling has led members of marginalized groups to resent and fear the police, rather than a cooperative one, which in turn may be exacerbating police negative views of these minority groups. As seen here in Edmonton, many persons of colour report being afraid to come to the police when they need help, due to what they feel is racially motivated carding and stops. When these concerns were brought forth by human rights interest groups over the last two years, one of the first reactions by police is that they are not racially profiling.
While this defensiveness is understandable, focusing on the perceptions of the people bringing their complaints forward, rather than focusing on the label is vital if we are to move forward to a more cooperative, mutually respectful interaction between police and the communities of people who are coloured. Ensuring that training is ongoing and teaches officers to not back track their justifications for stops (not come up with probably cause after, but to note what made them even look at the individual in the first place), and identifying attitudes that can lead to over generalizations and stereotyping may be of use. Debating police actions as racial profiling vs good policing is not solving the problem. Further study that focuses on healing the negativity between marginalized groups and police may help to move this conversation from one of blame-attack-defend to one of cooperative solutions.
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