Researchers help Canada’s largest police services eliminate racial profiling in policing

Police cruiser
Police cruiser

Lorne Foster and Les Jacobs have turned their expertise in human rights and research into a powerful force for equity.

By Krista Davidson

Lorne Foster
Lorne Foster

For the last decade, human rights experts Lorne Foster and Les Jacobs have been central figures in helping, through their research, to address systemic racism within some of Canada’s largest police departments. Recently, the pair announced they are joining forces with the Waterloo Regional Police Service to collect and analyze race-based data to further their research on anti-racism in policing.

The multi-year collaboration with the Waterloo Regional Police will develop an extensive data collection system across all police-citizen interactions, including the use of force, stop and question, traffic stops, charges, arrests and releases to support a more holistic approach to addressing instances of systemic racism within the service.

“The Waterloo Regional Police Service are thinking ahead. They want to better understand how to collect and use race-related data and analyze it to identify concrete measures for addressing systemic racism,” says Jacobs, a professor emeritus at York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) and the York Research Chair in Human Rights and Access to Justice. Jacobs is also vice-president of research and innovation at Ontario Tech University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

With Foster, a professor in the School of Public Policy & Administration at LA&PS, director of the Institute for Social Research and the York Research Chair in Black Canadian Studies & Human Rights, the duo is more than equipped to support the Waterloo police. They are the principal architects behind the 2017 Ontario Anti-Racism Act, which aims to identify and monitor systemic racism and racial disparities within the public sector. The act outlines what race-related data can be collected and how it can be used. It is the first and only race data standard in Canada.

Les Jacobs
Les Jacobs

The act continues to serve as an important milestone in Canada because it emphasizes the importance of disaggregating data to identify patterns of systemic racial disparities. It has significance for many public sectors but has relevance for the justice sector, including police services in Ontario.

The first major project by Foster and Jacobs was a comparative research analysis with police forces in Ottawa and this created a landmark racial profiling study, which took place from 2013 to 2015. This was followed by a second study from 2016 to 2019, with each study collecting about 125,000 traffic stops for a combined data set of 250,000. The dataset has since increased multifold and continues to grow.

They have also worked with the Toronto Police Services on a project focused exclusively on racial disparities in the use of force incidents. Their Waterloo, York and Peel police service collaborations went beyond the use of force to examine racial disparities and bias across all police-civilian interactions to better understand how race data research could be used to find concrete measures for addressing systemic racism.

“Before these collaborations, police services didn’t systematically collect race data, so their findings were colour blind. Groups, particularly those in government, begin to recognize that if they truly wanted to eliminate systemic racism in society, they needed to collect data that could help them to advance racial equity,” says Foster.

The disaggregated race data provides a starting point for police services to look constructively from an evidentiary perspective. Foster and Jacobs take a two-pronged approach to their research collaborations with the police departments.

“Our research methodologies are distinctive because we’re very committed to the idea that if race data is collected, it has to be made public. Secondly, it is important to involve racialized communities and to talk to them about what they want from the research project so we can better address what the community needs,” says Jacobs. “It’s not replaying the past and laying blame, but about figuring out how to make the future better.”

“Our research points to a baseline that enables people to have a constructive rather than polemical dialogue,” adds Foster.

While each police service in Ontario is different, Foster and Jacobs have identified similarities, particularly with recommendations on specific training and other strategies that will benefit the departments, including the use of early warning technology – a data-based police management tool that detects officers who display problematic behaviour, body-worn cameras and targets for reducing racial profiling in traffic stops.

“One recommendation we made for Ottawa, which had a disproportionately high number of traffic stops among Black and Middle-Eastern males, ages 16 to 24, was to create a target to bring down traffic stops for those groups by 20 per cent per year,” explains Foster.

Their key recommendation, however, is police departments should continue to collect and analyze race data in the future.

“I’m really proud of the progress that Les and I have made with police forces in Ontario. It is not an insignificant change. In the end, our research will make our society a little more inclusive and bring the justice sector closer to eliminating systemic racism and discrimination, and advancing racial equity,” says Foster.