A York University researcher who led a damning probe revealing how Black drivers and those of Middle Eastern descent were disproportionately targeted by Ottawa police has been hired by Peel Regional Police to do a deep dive into officers’ interactions with racialized people.
Lorne Foster, director of the Institute for Social Research at York University, has been contracted for the next three years to develop the methodology for Peel police to collect race-based data, analyze the information and report on the findings.
“We are the independent experts coming in, at arms-length and giving them, in the case of Ottawa, some bad news,” said Foster, a professor of public policy and human rights. “We’re coming in to get the data, so we can have an authoritative conversation about community and police relations.”
Unlike the Ottawa project, Foster said his job in Peel is to create a human rights-based data collection system that not only looks at traffic stops but dives deeper into a whole range of police and civilian interactions, including routine interactions with civilians, police stops, arrests and use of force.
“Every single system is going to be under scrutiny, in terms of checking for racial disproportionality and hopefully being able to take some steps to reduce them,” Foster said. “You have to have the data to understand what the gaps and the vulnerabilities are in the system.”
The collection of race-based data follows Peel police’s decision last October to collaborate with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on a legally binding commitment to address systemic racism and discrimination.
Foster’s research also comes amid the ongoing movement calling to “defund” police over an international reckoning about racism and use of force. Peel police are also facing their own public pressure over a series of 2020 incidents in which officers shot or harmed civilians, the majority of them racialized.
Foster said community input is a key part of the process.
“We’re not going to design any methodology until the community is heard from,” he said, adding he has already started holding meetings with Peel police leadership since starting on March 1.
Peel police Deputy Chief Anthony Odoardi said the plan is to report back to the community on interactions and outcomes, but also use it to reshape police interactions with racialized communities.
Last year, Ontario mandated all its police departments to document police use of force — cases in which police had a physical altercation with or pulled a weapon on a civilian — including the race of an individual against whom force was used.
In those cases, officers must now fill out a use-of-force report that asks them to record race from a list of seven ethnic categories.
The reports are filed with the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees policing.
“We’re collecting data in the most traditional means,” Odoardi said of the use-of-force reports, which Peel police started using in January.
Foster’s project will go much deeper.
He will once again be teaming up with fellow researcher Les Jacobs, Ontario Tech University’s new vice-president of research and innovation, who also worked with Foster on studies of police in Ottawa and Windsor. In Windsor, the duo did a human rights-led analysis of the police service’s more than 200 policies, offering recommendations on which needed tweaking, including a scan of the workforce to address gaps in female representation and set about increasing hiring.
Odoardi said the team will be looking at how Peel police can more “meaningful collect race-based data across all interactions and not just one siloed approach through use of force.”
Peel is already being held up as a template other services can duplicate.
Odoardi said Devon Clunis, Canada’s first Black police chief and Ontario’s first inspector general of policing, is looking to Peel to set a precedent on race-based data collection.
“We have the backing of the new inspector general to go ahead and look at this as a guiding document for all police agencies and for his office,” Odoardi said.
Odoardi said it was important to bring Foster and Jacobs in because they had a head start and track record for the type of work required.
Foster did two studies in Ottawa between 2013 and 2019. His study of more than 120,000 traffic stops done by Ottawa police over two years showed that drivers who were Black or Middle Eastern were stopped at disproportionately higher rates.
The report found that in 2017-2018, Middle Eastern drivers were stopped more than three times more often than what you would expect based on their segment of the driving population, while Black drivers were stopped more than twice as much.
“We put in place a system, where they have to eliminate, by 20 per cent, every year, those disproportionalities,” Foster noted of what he said is the incremental change that’s underway in Ottawa.
As a result, the Ottawa Police Service created a multi-year action plan to address the racial disparity.