There are “striking” differences in Torontonians’ perceptions of police depending on their race, with Black and Indigenous residents showing the lowest levels of trust in the city’s officers, according to a newly released survey commissioned by the civilian police board.
The survey found 50 per cent of Black respondents believe officers discriminated against them because of their ethnic background, and its results show a “very clear” association between carding and the public’s perception of Toronto police officers, its authors state.
Overall, 68 per cent of those surveyed believe the city’s police officers are honest. But that approval rating changes once broken down by race: while 72 per cent of white respondents said police were honest, just 41 per cent of Black and just over half of Indigenous people agreed.
“Blacks and some other minority groups clearly do not view the city’s law enforcement officers in the same light as their white/Caucasian peers,” write survey authors Gervan Fearon and Carlyle Farrell.
“Bridging these differences whether through more effective engagement in marginalized communities, better public messaging or other approaches, will be of tremendous societal benefit.”
The seven-member Toronto Police Services Board is expected to respond to the results at Thursday’s board meeting, after a presentation by Fearon, the president and vice-chancellor of Brock University, and Farrell, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.
The report is based on a survey of more than 1,500 randomly selected Toronto residents in November and December 2017, who were questioned about their views on policing in locations such as subways, malls and community centres. Participants varied in age, gender, ethnic background, address and income.
The survey aimed to establish a baseline of Torontonians’ trust in police, but was especially interested in the impact of “carding” — the police practice also known as street checks in which officers stop, question and document people who are not suspected of a crime.
The survey was done the same year new provincial regulations on carding came into effect, establishing restrictions on when and how Ontario police officers could stop and question members of the public. The survey sought to determine whether residents knew their rights during these police stops under the new laws.
Among the report’s key findings:
- Overall, 65 per cent of respondents believe police can be trusted to treat individuals of their ethnic group fairly. That perception was highest among white and Asian people (74-78 per cent) and lowest among Black people (26 per cent).
- Of the respondents who had been carded (170 people), 54 per cent did not believe that they were treated with respect by the police, and 59 per cent believed they were singled out because of their race.
The baseline survey follows a series of Toronto Star investigations into carding, which used police data obtained through freedom of information requests to show Black people — and, to a lesser extent, “brown” people — were being disproportionately stopped, questioned and documented.
The survey mirrors the Star’s findings, concluding that being Black or South Asian “significantly increases one’s odds of being stopped and questioned by police,” and being male increases the likelihood of being carded by 134 per cent. Having a low personal income makes individuals more likely to be carded: with every $20,000 decrease in income, a person’s odds of being carded increased by seven per cent.
The report’s authors say their findings make it “very clear that there is an association between carding and the public’s perception of Toronto police officers.
“A high percentage of respondents who had been carded expressed the view that officers were less honest and could not be trusted to treat with the public fairly,” the report states.
The Star found Black people were more likely than white people to be carded in every one of the city’s 70-plus patrol zones. The likelihood increased in areas that were predominantly white, and decreased in more diverse areas of the city.
Fearon and Farrell’s survey broke down public perception by the city’s 17 police divisions, and highlights differences. It found 77 per cent of respondents who live in 12 Division believe officers can be trusted to treat people of their ethnic background fairly, which was well above the city average of 53 per cent.
Furthermore, fewer than 10 per cent in 12 Division believed officers are biased against individuals of their background, significantly lower than the city average of 28 per cent.
The survey report doesn’t attempt to explain the positive perceptions in 12 Division, but highlights it as something to examine.
The Star’s carding investigations found that 12 Division, which includes the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood, is diverse and home to a large Black population. It also found that the Black-to-white likelihood of being carded was, for one spell, the lowest for Black people in the city.
Criminologists have said the patterns the Star uncovered were suggestive of an “out-of-place” phenomena, meaning police were less likely to disproportionately stop people in neighbourhoods where there were more people of their racial background.
In 2012, when carding data showed the neighbourhood to be heavily policed, one youth worker told the Star the relationship between youth and police was “toxic.” At the time, one patrol zone within the division had seen 20 homicides since 2005, the highest number in the city. Mark Saunders, who became chief in 2015, was posted to run the division.
The survey found that 61 per cent of people in 12 Division felt police officers were “effective in their engagements with the community” — the highest of all police divisions.
On the other end of the spectrum, the survey found citizen perceptions in Scarborough’s 43 Division lagging the citywide averages for honesty, trust, bias and favouritism.
The survey results also showed that respondents had “a good grasp” of their basic rights under Ontario’s new carding regulations. For example, 74 per cent of those surveyed knew police now have an obligation to inform those they stop during a street check that they have the right not to provide personal information.
The report also found that those surveyed are hopeful about impact of the provincial carding regulations: 70 per cent believe they could “promote better engagement between the police and the community,” and 67 per cent believe they will enhance public trust in the police.
The report makes five recommendations aimed at improving perceptions of police, including more effective engagement in “marginalized communities, better public messaging” and other approaches that “will be of tremendous societal benefit.”
It calls for a deeper look into the divisional differences and an empirical analysis that might uncover “novel solutions to some of the problems of effective community policing.”
The police board, the report suggests, should encourage police to “revisit” training methods so officers understand and have what they need to better engage with citizens, and create a permanent committee to provide “police-community relations” advice.
It also recommends a special independent complaints office for problems arising from the new street checks, which may “allay the fears of some community members that their rights may still be violated despite the new rules.”
Thursday’s police board meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at police headquarters, 40 College St.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin