Friday, July 19, 2024

Decade-long study shows racial disparities in Ottawa traffic stops | CBC News

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Ottawa’s police force says it has a “strong commitment” to improvement after a study into tens of thousands of traffic stops by its officers showed significant racial disparities.

The Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project has been studying policing in the city for more than a decade.

Its final report, released last week, analyzed 284,721 traffic stops by Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officers since June 2013. 

It found disproportionately high incidences of traffic stops involving Black and Middle Eastern drivers — despite a general decline during that time in the frequency of stops overall. 

In a Friday interview with CBC’s Ottawa Morning, Supt. Dave Zackrias was asked if the report suggests or demonstrates racial profiling.

“The study does not actually look at or come to a conclusion that there’s racial profiling,” he said. “It looks at this from a system standpoint.”

Ottawa Morning9:03Ottawa police release race-based data from 10-year traffic stop study

Since 2013, Ottawa police officers have been recording their perceptions of the race of drivers pulled over in traffic stops. The decades-long study shows there are ongoing racial disparities in traffic stops by police.

The OPS is not immune to systemic discrimination, Zackrias said, adding they’ve been looking at training, policies and approaches to deployment.

“We’re not where we want to be. But it’s an ongoing journey for us, and it’s going to take time to make a significant dent in this,” he said.

“It’ll take time and patience, but there is a strong commitment.”

The latest report shows that Black and Middle Eastern drivers continue to be disproportionately pulled over for traffic stops by OPS officers. (Ottawa Police Service)

According to the report, in 2023, drivers of Middle Eastern backgrounds were stopped 2.9 times more often than expected, based on their population, while Black drivers were pulled over 2.6 times more often.

Those two groups each make up about seven per cent of Ottawa’s total population.

“Black and Middle Eastern male drivers are, in particular, likely to be stopped for reasons of suspicious activity and possible criminal offences,” said Les Jacobs, a professor at Ontario Tech University and one of the report’s co-authors.

While the researchers had previously released data from the overall project, Jacobs said they were careful not to draw any conclusions about suspicious activity because the sample size was small.

“After 10 years, we did feel quite confident to point out that there were some patterns,” he said.

Sahada Alolo is photographed inside Ottawa City Hall.
Sahada Alolo, co-chair with the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, said recent data on Ottawa Police Service traffic stops was not surprising. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

However, the data also indicated white drivers are most likely to be charged following a traffic stop, while Black drivers are the least likely to be charged. 

Researchers for the report suggest Black and Middle Eastern drivers are often stopped without cause and released without action.

Black drivers saw a decline in overall stops until 2018, followed by an increase, with 2023 figures surpassing those from 2013-2015. 

Middle Eastern drivers experienced a similar trend, although their stops remained below the levels seen from 2013 to 2018. White drivers, conversely, saw a steady decline in stops over the decade.

The study also found there is better progress being made in reducing disparities for women than men. 

‘It wasn’t surprising’

Sahada Alolo, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, said the findings lined up with what she has heard from community members.

“It’s discouraging, very disappointing because we don’t want to be where we are right now. But it wasn’t surprising,” she said.

“People’s lived experiences are real. We know what community members experience. This report just sort of affirmed what people already experienced.”

Working with the equity council, the OPS has established an 18-month task force and action plan as a result of the reporting. 

The task force will review traffic stop policies, create new training and do more analysis to improve on the decade-worth of data. It will also be required to provide regular updates to the city.

Having the data, Alolo said, is a major step forward and the commitment from OPS to do better gives her hope.

“People’s experiences are their realities … it is affirming if data actually comes out to confirm what people have been experiencing,” she said.

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