Sofia Hashi | Fulcrum Staff
In 2005, Chad Aiken was driving around Ottawa in his mother’s Mercedes when he was pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to the officer, a passenger in Aiken’s car recorded their exchange.
“Is there any way I can get your badge number, sir?” asked Aiken.
“It’s 666, that’s my badge number,” replied the officer, who initially refused to tell Aiken why he had pulled him over.
“You aren’t going to give me your badge number?” continued Aiken.
“You have two seconds to get into your car.”
It’s worth mentioning that Aiken is black. His encounter with the police quickly became a national story. The African-Canadian teen filed a complaint against the Ottawa Police Services, bringing them to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Aiken said the only reason he was pulled over was because he is black—essentially, he believed the police officer in question was profiling him based on his race. Although the police officer’s identity in Aiken’s case was never uncovered and thus no charges could be pressed against him directly, a settlement reached outside of court between the Ottawa Police Services Board and the Ontario Human Rights Commission resulted in the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project, in which race-based data on every vehicle stopped in Ottawa will be recorded over a two year period beginning June 2013 to study and address concerns related to racial profiling.
Law, order, and race
But how is it that in the 21st century, racial profiling is an issue at all? While most would agree discriminating against someone based on their appearance is inherently wrong, evidence shows that law enforcers still use this strategy in their line of work. George Higgins, who holds a Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Indiana, wrote about the issue in his essay “Examining the Generality of Citizens’ Views on Racial Profiling in Diverse Situational Contexts.” Higgins noted that racial profiling is misused by authorities and allows them to act upon their biases.
“[Racial profiling] has been used to determine the individuals that were supposedly most likely to perform criminal activity,” wrote Higgins in his essay. “More specifically, the rationale behind the practice is that it can be used as a means to quickly eliminate or identify potential suspects and, in principle, is meant to allow officers to become more efficient at proactive law enforcement.”
Racial profiling doesn’t only happen at traffic stops. At airports and malls, two settings in which criminal activity is a major concern, stops are often made based solely on race. For some, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, stereotyping in airports became less about ethics and more about necessity.
“Just a week ago, it seemed so simple, so universally accepted that it had become the received wisdom. Racial profiling was wrong,” wrote Joyce Purnick in the New York Times shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
“But that was then and this is now, after the terrorist assault on Tuesday that changed and confused everything. It doesn’t seem simple anymore, the question of racial profiling. Is it OK now—even necessary—to stereotype in a city that has become a prime target of terrorists?” continued Purnick.
A grey area
The issues surrounding racial profiling aren’t black and white. As Devon Johnson, a criminology and law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, explained in his essay “Attitudes Toward the Use of Racial/Ethnic Profiling to Prevent Crime and Terrorism,” public opinion supported the use of race-based stereotyping to prevent crime after Sept. 11, 2001.
On the other hand, individuals who have experienced such stereotyping are quick to point out that racial profiling is just a euphemism for racism.
“Anyone who uses racial profiling is using it as an excuse,” said Weris Dualeh, a fourth-year human rights major at Carleton University.
“I’ve been racially profiled because of what I look like. Being treated like a criminal when you’re not one is a horrible feeling,” she said. “To anyone who is in favour of racial profiling, I’d ask them to try being stereotyped themselves and then see if they’re still for it.”
For others, racism has never really been on their radars. Becky Wright, a second-year history student at the University of Ottawa, didn’t realize that racism still exists and impacts individuals in their day-to-day lives.
“It seems ridiculous to me,” she said in an interview with the Fulcrum. “I guess because I don’t have stereotypes and because it’s commonly accepted that being racist is wrong, I just assumed that stuff like racial profiling didn’t happen anymore.”
Wright is not alone in her assumptions. According to a 2002 study of American perceptions of racial profiling by Weitzer and Tuch, 81.6 per cent of black people felt that racial profiling was widespread, compared to only 60.2 per cent of white people. As well, only five per cent of black people approved of the practice in contrast with 15.6 per cent of white people. The study also showed that 72.7 per cent of young black males (aged 18 to 34) feel as if they’ve been racially profiled at some point in their lives.
An issue in Ottawa
Ismail Hassan, a fourth-year math major at Carleton, believes he has been unjustly stereotyped by law enforcement because of his skin colour.
“One time I was walking from Mooney’s Bay Beach with a few friends when two cops on bicycles passed by us. It wasn’t long before they turned around and pulled us over. I mean, we got pulled over for walking,” said Hassan in an email to the Fulcrum.
This was the second time in under two weeks that Hassan had been stopped, seemingly without reason.
“They began to question us. After a while I started getting angry and annoyed because I recognized one of [the officers],” said Hassan. “I told him that I recognized him and that he had pulled us over a week ago; he responded with, ‘I guess that looks bad on you.’ I then asked him if he enjoyed pulling us over. He just said that he is just doing his job. I guess his job is harassing young, black African men.”
Dualeh has had similar experiences.
“I was driving my car when I was suddenly pulled over. After running a check for my licence and the car’s registration, the police officer asked to see the IDs [of everyone in the car]. He asked us questions that had nothing to do with any traffic violations,” she said.
“[His questions] all had to do with where we were going and if we lived in Cedarwood. When we told him no, he said he was looking for five black girls from that area and we fit the description. While I was polite throughout the whole exchange, inwardly I became angry and couldn’t stop thinking that we were only stopped because we are black.”
The police perspective
Hassan and Dualeh’s cases share many similarities with Aiken’s case. All took place in Ottawa and all allegedly involved racial profiling by the police. These are incidents that can have serious consequences for those involved, beyond being inconvenienced by an unnecessary stop.
“I think racial profiling is a problem in Ottawa. In general, police treatment of minority groups is an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Suad Sheek-Hussein, a fourth-year law major at Carleton.
“The first time my brother was arrested, he was mistaken for someone else. The police were looking for a black youth and I guess they just arrested the first one they saw. This kind of thing happens all the time to black youth. A lot of the stories my friends share are very similar,” she continued.
“[What happened] makes me feel like [the police] are genuinely ignorant. There is this common notion that ‘all black people look the same,’ and that is not true. Honestly, the only thing they probably have in common is their skin colour.”
Hassan echoed similar sentiments.
“If you are black, you are a criminal—[you’re] guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) maintains that it is committed to ensuring bias-free policing. In 2001, it became the first police service in Canada to introduce a policy on racial profiling, which defines racial profiling in policing as any instance, “when race, ethnicity, colour, place of origin, religion, or stereotypes about offending or dangerousness associated with any of these characteristics, is used, consciously or unconsciously, to any degree in suspect selection or suspect treatment except when looking for a particular suspect who has committed an offence and who is identified, in part, by their race.” The policy also states that, “members of the Ottawa Police Service shall not engage in racial profiling in any of their activities.”
The policy appears clear cut, but according to the OPS, implementing it may not be so simple. In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Chief of Police Charles Bordeleau explained that stereotypes are a problem faced by society, not just the OPS.
“The reality is that racial profiling exists in society and therefore can exist in policing,” he said.
The OPS hopes the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project will promote trust and confidence in the police, since the project aims to address community concerns regarding racial profiling.
“We’re a very progressive police service, but at the same time, we don’t want to stand still,” explained inspector Pat Flanagan in an interview with the Fulcrum. “We want to continue the dialogue and our ultimate goal is to be a professional, unbiased police service for the community.”
Causes and consequences
Paul Lachance, a history professor at the U of O, has taught seminars on the topic of race. When questioned about why racial profiling still exists today, Lachance replied simply with “racism.”
“In terms of science, it’s generally agreed that there is no scientific basis for racial distinction,” said Lachance. “Why it continues despite its being discredited in the scientific sense has to do with racism.”
“It’s racism that persists, and racism involves a notion that you’re not only distinguishing between races, but you’re also creating a hierarchy,” he continued.
Scot Wortley, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, argues there are psychological and cultural effects that racial profiling promotes.
“To argue that racial profiling is harmless, that it only hurts those who break the law, is to totally ignore the psychological and social damage that can result from always being considered one of the ‘usual suspects,’” he said in an interview with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Hassan said that after being racially profiled countless times, he’s begun to begrudge authorities and Caucasian people.
“It’s built up a resentment towards white people. I felt like it’s a them-against-us scenario,” he said.
Sheek-Hussein understands that mistakes can be made, but thinks racial profiling goes beyond innocent mistakes.
“It’s obviously not a big deal if once in a while police make mistakes,” she said. “But when these mistakes become commonplace and only occur to a certain group in society, then something needs to be done.”
Envisioning a solution
The stereotyping that occurs within law enforcement has to do with personal biases; it is a problem when police officers’ understanding of potential criminal threats is not solely based on reason, but on certain perceptions that may be unfounded. While science has refuted the notion that there is a basis for racial discrimination, learned ideas about race still exist.
Sheek-Hussein offered up the idea of “intense sensitivity training” for authorities when it came to racial profiling, and training for officers is being implemented as one part of the OPS’s Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project.
The project is one of the OPS’s main avenues for combating racial profiling. Although the project’s launch date was pushed back two months on March 11, Flanagan says this is because good projects take time to implement correctly.
“It’s obviously a significant project and we feel that its success is directly related to the amount of meaningful consultation that we conduct with both our police members and members of the community,” he explained. “These consultations will help us shape the final product, that final product being solid, meaningful, measurable data.
“We’ve put together both police advisory groups and community advisory groups and we’ll work with those groups to assist York University to make some recommendations to move forward as far as what our next steps are in relation to the results of the data.”
Hassan offered up a completely different idea.
“Eliminate the idea of race,” he said.
“We are all human beings. We all live and die the same. Treat everyone equally instead of singling out a group of people or race.”