(This article was published in the Toronto Star and in the Huffington Post on April 14 and 15, 2015.)
“Fair and bias-free policing.”
That was the promise of Toronto’s Chief of Police less than a year ago. At the time, Chief Bill Blair was hailing the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER) report. According to Chief Blair, the report was a “comprehensive review.” It was written by the police and made recommendations on how to eliminate racial profiling and bias from policing in Toronto.
While many felt that the report did not go far enough, Chief Blair echoed the sentiments of Professor Atiba Goff of the Los Angeles Centre for Policing Equity, who said that PACER “is about as good as you can ask for.” The Chief signaled his and the force’s intention to implement the recommendations of the report, including one that required officers to issue “receipts” to those residents (disproportionately young black or brown men) whom they stopped and questioned, even if they were not linked to an offence.
That particular measure proved incredibly effective: the requirement to issue receipts resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of random stops, proving that most of those stops were not essential for public safety, and that, more importantly, officers who are held accountable are less likely to stop and harass people without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
The goal of the PACER report was to make Toronto police a “world-leader” in bias-free policing. And in committing to its goals, the Chief made the promises that were morally and ethically required of him. He asserted, “We do not tolerate racism or racial profiling in the Toronto Police Service…It is essential that we do everything possible to ensure that bias does not influence our decisions.” [Emphasis is mine.]
But in the 10 months since Chief Blair wrote those promising words in a Toronto Star opinion piece, the police have reverted to denial and resistance. Inexplicably, the Chief and his boss, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), which includes Toronto’s new mayor, participated in a closed mediation. The result: the TPSB is now set to vote, this Thursday, on a policy that is offensive and insidious. This new policy not only eliminates the requirement to issue receipts, but it takes us back even further than we were a few months ago.
So we’ve gone from refusal, to resistance, to resignation, to recognition of the problem, to partial resolution (the PACER report) and now, to retraction, recalcitrance and regression.
Where is the commitment to a fair and equitable society, to bias-free policing?
When our police force and the TPSB were initially faced with undeniable proof of racial profiling, they could shield themselves with claims of, “We did not know the extent of the bias. We are not racist.” Indeed, in the PACER report, the police drew a valid distinction between bias and racism. And Chief Blair, in his Toronto Star piece, declared, “We are not racist but we are all human. The science of bias teaches us that even the best-intentioned, most decent and honourable people can be influenced by the implicit bias we all have.”
But the police can no longer hide behind good intentions and claims of “mere” bias. We know that racial profiling occurs and that it is discriminatory and harmful. While human nature makes us prone to bias, institutional policies can either prevent that bias or promote it. We had taken some steps to rectify the problem. And now we have reverted.
When we reverse our efforts to eliminate or drastically reduce bias, and come up with mechanisms that will condone it, we are no longer “merely” biased. We are now something much worse. We are knowingly, recklessly, and irresponsibly permitting racial profiling. This is institutionalized racism.
Is this the wish and the legacy of the Chief who once said, “Good enough won’t cut it” when addressing racial profiling? Is this going to be the legacy of a Mayor who ran for “One Toronto?” Is this the direction of an oversight body and a civilian boss, the TPSB, that was once committed to diversity and fair treatment?
If the Board approves the Chief’s proposal on Thursday, the answer will be a loud and alarming, “Yes.”