Toronto police to look into whether race-based data could be used differently

The Toronto Police Services emblem is photographed during a press conference at TPS headquarters, in Toronto on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Toronto police have been told to look into whether the race-based data they are legally required to collect could eventually be used to identify and investigate "specific instances of potential inequitable policing" as well as broader, systemic issues.

The Toronto Police Services Board passed a set of motions Wednesday aimed at examining -- and potentially expanding -- what can be done with the data under provincial legislation and its own policy.

"In terms of identifying specific divisions or individual officers, the intent is certainly to look at whether and how this can be done, respecting applicable law that creates the framework in which this is done," Ryan Teschner, the board's executive director and chief of staff, said in an email.

The board will then look at that assessment and review its policy on race-based data, Teschner said, adding the motions "contemplate a situation in the future where such analysis could be possible, respecting the legal framework."

When it adopted the policy in 2019, the board said the data would not be used to identify specific officers or manage their performance, but to "identify trends that contribute to professional development and organizational change."

Last week, Toronto police released the first set of statistics compiled under the policy. The numbers show Black and racialized residents face disproportionate use of force and, for some groups, disproportionate enforcement and more frequent strip searches.

The policy was enacted in 2019 after the provincial government passed the Anti-Racism Act, which requires several public sectors to collect such information.

In a news conference last week, interim police Chief James Ramer said the data were meant to highlight systemic issues, and couldn't be used to investigate the actions of individual officers because the Anti-Racism Act and the privacy commissioner require them to be anonymized.

Ramer also said there were existing processes, such as internal investigations and the courts, to deal with the actions of individual officers, and that the force does not tolerate "overt racism."

Ontario's privacy commissioner has since clarified that the law does not prevent police from using the data to assess and discipline individual officers.

"The (information and privacy commissioner) has not stated that the Anti-Racism Act or the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act prevents a police service from using data -- anonymous or otherwise -- collected as part of a race-based data collection strategy to inform the supervision, training, and discipline of its police officers," the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said in a statement.

"These laws are designed to protect people's personal information rather than information that identifies an individual in a business, professional or official capacity."

Ramer acknowledged the clarification at the police board meeting Wednesday, confirming the privacy commissioner's office did not provide advice related to the rule restricting the use of race-based data to systemic issues.

But he said the force's data analysis was "built to comply with the board's policy, and thus it simply cannot be used for individual performance issues."

Toronto Mayor John Tory, who sits on the police board, said Wednesday the report "clearly tells us that we have a problem" but the anonymization makes it impossible to "drill down and determine where the problem lies."

While there are cultural and systemic issues that need to be addressed, "I think it is impossible to meet that big challenge without addressing individual behaviour," he said.

"I believe the unacceptable conduct is confined to a relatively small group but even if that number is relatively small… individual behaviour can and does impact the overall police culture," the mayor said.

Ramer apologized to the city's Black and racialized residents last week as the statistics were published, saying the force needs to do better.

Many advocates and community members have said the report only confirms what Black and racialized people have been saying for decades.

The numbers show Black people in the city faced a disproportionate amount of police enforcement and use of force in 2020 and were more likely to have an officer point a gun at them -- whether perceived as armed or unarmed -- than white people in the same situation.

The report also shows Middle Eastern people were overrepresented when it came to enforcement and use of force, while Latino and East and Southeast Asian residents experienced less enforcement in comparison to their representation in the population but saw more use of force when they did interact with police.

There were also racial differences in strip searches, with Indigenous, Black and white residents searched disproportionately compared with how many of them were arrested.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.