Fair Policing Not Black and White

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 5:03 p.m. July 25, 2014
Updated: 6:05 p.m. July 25, 2014

When a Toronto Police officer is in your neighbourhood, the intent is that they are in the right place, at the right time, to prevent crime and catch criminals in the act.

A map of Toronto with red, yellow and blue zones and green dots.
Green dots represent homicides in Toronto from 2008 to 2013. The areas in red, show the areas where the greatest number of Community Safety Notes are written.

It’s a place-based approach to policing that targets crimes and safety issues in areas, not people.

“If you want to address stolen vehicles, you need to visit every major TTC parking lot and shopping centre because that’s where most vehicles are stolen,” explains Deputy Chief Peter Sloly. “Unless the specific information is that there is an Eastern European organized crime ring operating there, or descriptors of specific people in other related theft-of-autos, it’s the location where we’re going.”

When laid out on a map of the city, violent crimes, such as shootings and homicides, often cluster – they are not spread evenly over the whole city. Victimization rates do not align to census demographics.

 It’s the reason why officers are deployed at different times, in different ways, to different part of the city. When officers go to those neighbourhoods to address a crime or safety issue, they will interact with many people – it could be victims of crime, a suspect, a witness or a community leader.

If there is a reasonable public-safety purpose, such as a suspicion the person had been there for a criminal purpose, a Community Safety Note (CSN) can be submitted to the police records management system.

Bias is a human condition, racism is a human failing

So, when a newspaper headline claims race plays a factor in those stops, specifically that the proportion of young black and brown men stopped by police is higher in Community Safety Notes than the proportion of black and brown men in the population of an area, the Service takes notice.

Understandably, when people feel they are targeted based on who they are, not what they did, the public’s confidence in police can be shaken, something Sloly says erodes the core mission of the police.

“We decrease our ability to solve and prevent crimes when we lose more trust and confidence,” he notes, pointing to allegations of racial profiling – an accusation that has been levelled at police agencies across North America that destroys confidence in police. “Fewer people show up at shooting scenes, fewer people who do show up volunteer usable information, fewer people who volunteer usable information show up to court.”

If an officer makes a decision to stop someone based on race, gender or for any other reason of bias, he has not only broken a code of conduct, he has broken the law. 

Chief Bill Blair says that there is little that shakes the confidence of the public more than the accusation of policing with bias.

“Bias is a human condition, racism is a human failing,” says Blair. “We acknowledge that there is an element of human bias because we’re an organization of human beings.”

A map of Toronto with red, yellow and blue zones. Black lines from irregular shapes throughout the map
Black lines show areas where most shootings have occurred from 2008 to 2013. The red zones show where most Community Safety Notes are written by officers

Sloly says the organization already has tools in place to root out explicit bias, but the Service is now trying to ensure officers have the policies, procedures and training to ensure biased-based policing does not take place.  Project PACER (Police And Community Engagement Review) is the most comprehensive review and redesign of police practices in North America to ensure fair and bias-free policing. 

Amongst the  31 recommendations is an emphasis on quality community interactions. The Service is now seeing a trend of higher quality community engagements (improved intelligence-led processes, better officer decisions, enhanced communication skills, more respectful interaction, higher value information collection, improved supervision, additional quality control, more accountable information retention, etc.) and a significant reduction in the quantity of Community Safety Notes.

But policing is hardly an exact science with a simple formula. A recent Toronto Star analysis again points to the number of Community Safety Notes is disproportionate to the census data in the area.

Sloly says that it is both unreasonable and impossible to have officer activity or police service-delivery equate exactly with the demographic census figures of a particular piece of geography ( whether an entire neighbourhood or localized to a school or apartment building.)

 “There is no operational plan, nor should there ever be an operational plan that, when you go into community X for public safety reason Y, you can’t make sure that the end result of all of your outputs – the directed patrols, the parking tags, the POTs (Provincial Offence Tickets), the CSNs, arrests, charges… matches up perfectly to the census data for that particular geography. If we did that, it would not be an intelligent plan,” says Sloly, noting police have the responsibility to keep the community safe, not conduct a social-engineering experiment.

Dr. Atiba Goff says the city needs to take a more sophisticated view of the statistics to determine if there is bias in policing. Goff is a researcher and professor with the University of California at Los Angeles Centre For Policing Equity (CPE). 

“The first thing that comes to mind, as a data nerd, is to help folks understand the difference between population benchmarking – comparing the demographics of people getting stopped versus the demographics in the lived area – to a more sophisticated analysis of how we would think about profiling. We have to zoom back out in terms of how we think of law enforcement to a broader picture,” says the researcher, who has worked with police services across North America to address bias, achieving success in both public and officer satisfaction. Goff and the CPE are funded independently, and are not paid by the police services they work with and own any information they collect from those police organizations.

Goff said that, if the assumption is that police officers have shown bias, why can’t that be applied to those working in education, healthcare, employment, wealth accruement and housing? What percentage of the people were discriminated against before even speaking with a police officer?

It is the notion of disparity.

If we’re not even measuring issues of racial disparity, then we’re not taking it seriously.

“It’s not fair to blame police for things that are happening before anyone gets to a law-enforcement contact,” says Goff. “If we’re not even measuring issues of racial disparity, then we’re not taking it seriously. And I think one of the good things happening in law enforcement around the country is that people are starting to take it seriously.”

His consortium of social scientists has been tasked with evaluating Project PACER, which he says is among the most comprehensive plans to ensure that a police service is free of bias.

“(PACER) is about as good as you can ask for – even those hating law enforcement can acknowledge that. There always will be, and should be, community concerns because of the incredible power given to law enforcement. But, if you’re looking to get better, this is certainly a recipe for it.”

A man against a book case
Social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, of the UCLA Centre for Equity in Policing
A head and shoulders photo of a woman
Audrey Campbell, immediate past president of the Jamaican Canadian Association who sits on the PACER Advisory Committee

Chief Bill Blair says the Toronto Police Service is fully committed to implementing the  31 PACER recommendations. The Service has brought community members and academics into the fold of PACER implementation to hold police accountable and give the project greater transparency and legitimacy.

“It would be harder to find a more credible group,” says PACER implementation team Inspector Myron Demkiw, of the community members. “We want them to come in and benchmark our organization on efficacy, on equity, and track us over the course of time to see how we do with the  PACER project until 2016 and track the effectiveness of the implementation.”

Goff says that he’s uninterested in rooting out racists and more interested in the policies and procedures that lead officers into a bias situation.

“As social scientists, we know that attitudes predict 10% of behaviour at best. So, if the behaviour is racial profiling… than officers’ attitudes are only 10% of the problem. The rest of the problem is the policy, the response of the community, the context of the neighbourhood and interacting with the person’s personality. So, if their attitudes are a smaller part of the problem, the accusation (that they are racist) is not as important to me as a researcher. I don’t care who is racist and who is not. I care a lot more about disparities that are objectionable.”

Our (black) community felt like they were being targeted more than any other community

Immediate past president of the Jamaican Canadian Association Audrey Campbell is not someone considered an easy audience when it comes to the issue of racial profiling. But she is one of 16 community members representing a wide variety of groups that provided input on the PACER recommendations and is seeing them through. 

“Our (black) community felt like they were being targeted more than any other community and they were being disadvantaged because of it,” says Campbell, who has felt she has been stopped by the police because she was out of place as a black woman in a tony area of the city.

Campbell says that hearing from the community allows officers to understand where people are coming from.

“If you came up to me and said ‘Hey, what are you doing in this neighbourhood?’, then, all of a sudden, that’s when the fight starts. That’s when I say ‘I pay my taxes. Does that mean I can’t walk anywhere? I don’t look like I can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood?’” says Campbell. “It’s all in the training and in the approach. It’s all how you engage the community.”

She underlines the need for better training in the recommendations, recently having participated in the Fair and Impartial Policing training alongside Chief Bill Blair and senior officers.

“I thought it was eye-opening to be frank – the implicit bias. People don’t realize that they have biases. Everyone does,”

Fair and Impartial Policing training is currently being rolled out to all TPS officers. 

People don’t realize that they have biases. Everyone does

Dr. Lorrie Fridell, who delivered training to community members and senior managers, said having biases is human, acting on them is wrong.

“This isn’t some people, this is basically all of us who have implicit biases that impact on our perceptions and behaviour. The problem is that we need to be aware of it and we need to ensure our behaviour is bias-free,” says the University of South Florida professor.

“I have come to believe that police in North America are well-intentioned individuals who want to police in a fair and impartial manner,” Fridell said. “The issue is that we hire police from the same population as the rest of us and what social psychologists tell us is that we have biases.”

She says, once people have accepted that we all have biases, the training works to reduce and manage those biases, noting that they make policing unsafe, ineffective and unjust.

A woman stands gesturing with her hands as a man, out of focus in foreground, looks on
Dr. Lorie Fridell, delivers Fair & Impartial Policing training to Toronto Police Command and community members at the Toronto Police College

“It makes you over-vigilant against some people and under-vigilant against others,” she says, noting a role-playing exercise that finds officers were able to find a gun in the small of the back of a male suspect more often than a female suspect because they have a bias that men are more violent. The bias displayed there could cost someone their life.

She teaches officers to slow down in non-emergency situations and examine in their own mind: Is their behaviour being affected by bias?

“Implicit biases fill in, with stereotypes, people we don’t know,” she says, of the instant information your brain will give you when encountering any situation – such as assuming a poorly dressed man is homeless.

She says another danger is allowing bias by proxy.

“A person will call police to say they see a suspicious person on their street but, when questioned, all that is suspicious is that they are a black person,” she says, of having police question why the call is being made, not blindly respond to it.

But they’re going in there with the real purpose of balancing out those policing tools and using them appropriately, focusing on prevention and not defaulting automatically to the enforcement aspect

Sloly says PACER not only addresses training but the whole constellation of police practices, including piloting the use of body-worn cameras to record police interactions with the public.

Chief Blair supports the use of body-worn cameras, noting cameras in cars have proved successful.

“The best cop will always want the best evidence of their best performance. The most cynical community member will always want the best evidence of poor police performance. And the research shows, clearly, that the majority of evidence is good cops doing good police work,” says Blair, noting body-worn cameras have the dual effect of protecting police against malicious complaints while instilling trust in the public that, if there is a problem, it can be looked into definitively. “At the end of the day, when a camera hangs off a lapel and it captures these engagements in audio and video, that’s the ultimate proof.”

Evidence has also been found that body-worn cameras moderate the behaviour of both officers and the people they are coming into contact with in the community.

The Service has made substantial public-safety strides in recent years to produce double-digit crime reductions. The Service is now making similar advancements with public trust through Project PACER, along with the use of progressive place-based Neighbourhood Policing Strategies. “Teams of Neighbourhood Officers have been given two-year assignments in small neighborhoods that have suffered from high crime rates but who are filled with good decent people trying to provide for their families and contribute to society,” Sloly says, of the officers who work in communities such as Dixon Road, Woolner Avenue or Regent Park.

A group of five officers in TPS uniform on bikes in a treed setting
Neighbourhood TAVIS officers in Moss Park. They are working in 51 Division this summer to prevent violence that typically occurs over the summer months

These teams patrol their neighborhoods, on foot, with a mandate to identify community leaders, mobilize community resources, build local capacity, form problem-solving partnerships, prioritize local safety issues and prevent/suppress local crime.  The Neighborhood Officers still respond to emergencies and conduct enforcement as required to address immediate criminal activity.  

“But they’re going in there with the real purpose of balancing out those policing tools and using them appropriately, focusing on prevention and not defaulting automatically to the enforcement aspect,” says Sloly.

He says this type of community policing has led to better community relations as well as reducing crime and victimization rates. He noted there is still work to be done before reaching the goal of bias-free delivery.

Audrey Campbell says she believes the Service is genuine in its ambitions to police fairly and ultimately believes in Project PACER.

“One of the things I want people to realize, including the police, is that the organizations that are at the table are there because we believe. We believe that TPS is sincere about this initiative. If we did not believe that, we would not be at the table,” she says. “Because, at the end of the day, we have to go back to our community, we have to give reports and we have to justify whether we want to support the decisions taking place.”

TPS crest watermark