Police-check numbers have 'startled' Nova Scotians, premier says
Published Thursday, January 12, 2017 3:06PM AST Last Updated Thursday, January 12, 2017 4:12PM AST
HALIFAX -- By his count, Carlos Beals estimates he's been stopped by police at least a dozen times, always walking away without an arrest and for reasons that to him seemed flimsy at best.
But Beals says he found himself feeling optimistic when new police numbers released this week confirmed black men in Halifax were three times more likely than whites to be subject to so-called street checks.
"I know that this is happening so often to young black men ... So when I saw the statistics, I said we are going to make great progress in the city of Halifax," said Beals, a 26-year-old outreach worker with the anti-violence program CeaseFire Halifax.
"We are acknowledging there is a problem and we are in a better place to provide some solutions to the problem."
Indeed, the numbers have now kick-started a civic conversation, similar to debates in other Canadian cities that have grappled with their own allegations of racial profiling by police.
On Thursday, both Nova Scotia's premier and Halifax's mayor said they were concerned by the figures.
"I don't think it's acceptable anywhere. I think I was startled, like most Nova Scotians, by the stats that were brought out," Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters.
Mayor Mike Savage said the numbers concerned him, and he would press the force to gather more information to determine why the checks were done and what police were looking for in neighbourhoods where they were carried out.
"Nobody is sweeping this under the table," he said in an interview. "This has to be seen as a red flag."
A report this week from the Halifax RCMP -- which patrols certain parts of the Halifax Regional Municipality -- also found a high level of street checks in the first 10 months of 2016 involved black people. It said that of the 1,246 street checks in that period, 41 per cent involved African-Nova Scotians.
The Halifax Regional Police figures showed that between 2005 and 2016, that force conducted 68,400 street checks of people and groups. Information gleaned from the checks, including gender, age and race, is entered in a database and used as an investigative tool.
Of the roughly 37,000 people checked over that period, almost 4,100 were black, despite making up only 3.59 per cent of the municipal population, according to the 2011 census. The figures show a much smaller percentage of white people were checked.
The statistics, compiled by the force's research co-ordinator, Chris Giacomantonio, also indicate men between the ages of 15 and 24 were statistically more likely to be checked -- and 61 per cent of people checked had no prior charges.
Giacomantonio briefed the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners this week, saying more analysis is needed on whether certain neighbourhoods are being targeted, if the checks themselves bring a cycle of increased contact, and whether they are effective in fighting crime.
Sylvia Parris, the commission's only black member, said the new data should give pause to the disputed practice, to address a key question.
"How do we ensure that this practice -- which is having an disproportionate impact on a particular racial community -- is something that we really need to do?" she said. "I'm just trying to get people to think deeply about what would be a major disadvantage in not doing them until we get it all figured out and have more data."
Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais has said it's too early to determine whether police have zeroed in on people based on their race and said more work is needed to determine what the data means.
"People will automatically assume that the reason why there's a disparity is because of racial profiling," he told one media outlet. "I want us to get at a deeper level to determine exactly what are the causes."
The force has gathered the information since 2005, two years after the human rights commission concluded boxer Kirk Johnson was targeted by Halifax police because he was black and awarded him $10,000. A police officer had pulled over Johnson's car and impounded it for no reason, and he said he had been stopped by police nearly 30 times in five years.
The Halifax findings come after new regulations banned the practice of carding, or random street checks, by Ontario police.
New rules prohibit what is termed "the arbitrary collection of identifying information by police," and officers must tell people up front they have a right to walk away without providing identification or answering their questions.
McNeil said he couldn't say whether the police numbers suggest there is some sort of systemic racism at play in Nova Scotia, but he said it's important for the Halifax municipality, law enforcement and the community to work together to better understand the data.
There's no doubt, he said, racism in general has plagued the province in the past.
"By acknowledging it in the past and trying to make sure you are putting in place the proper procedure and protocols, you begin the healing process, but you also begin the conversation," he said.
"I think we need to hear from more minorities about their experiences."