Human Rights Commission asks for community buy-in as advocates voice scepticism over initiative with troubled Peel Police force
The Peel Regional Police force has been here before, unrolling a new commitment to tackle internal issues of systemic discrimination.
Buzzwords like “bold” and “meaningful changes” adorn the latest press release announcing a new agreement with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
It is an effort to do what PRP has failed to tackle in the past.
This time, Chief Nishan Duraiappah and his new partners at the OHRC say it is different. A new diversity and equity policy being shaped by the beleaguered force has been endorsed and will be sculpted with oversight by the most significant human rights body in Ontario.
Chief Nishan Duraiappah has not implemented any direct action to turn around his force's disturbing record on equity and diversity
The new agreement, unveiled in principle Tuesday, is a memorandum of understanding between PRP and OHRC to end discrimination within the force and create transparency. It is an attempt to rebuild a trust that lies in tatters.
In an interview with The Pointer, Ena Chadha, OHRC Chief Commissioner, promised key community stakeholders would shape the project, compiling a list of commitments for their police force to follow.
The undertaking has been billed as “legally binding” by the force, but details have yet to be ironed out and no such legal commitment has been established. But the announcement signals the beginning of a process involving communities across Mississauga and Brampton who will be tasked with shaping new diversity and equity rules for PRP to follow.
Following a consultation, the Peel Regional Police Services Board (PRPSB), PRP and OHRC will agree upon terms with the community early in 2021 and approach the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), which rules on cases, to request a consent order. This future agreement will represent the legal force behind the transformative initiative.
“The Tribunal has broad remedial powers to prevent discrimination and promote human rights,” Chadha told The Pointer. “[If the agreement is broken], the Tribunal could order the police to undertake the outstanding work/promise and impose a deadline, it could order financial damages for failure to satisfy the agreement, or [it] could order additional terms or remedies ... For example, the Tribunal could order the police to hire external consultants to monitor the arrangements.”
The project is based on the OHRC’s policy framework for eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement, which could entail a broad set of reforms, from hiring more reflective of communities, to promotional practices aimed at eliminating nepotism and cronyism while ensuring cultural competency among leadership ranks. It represents an attempt from the outside body to help bring a culture shift to Peel’s police service.
“The parties also commit to robust engagement with Black, other racialized and Indigenous communities in the Peel Region to learn from their experiences before finalizing a legally binding agreement,” a media release from the organization reads.
Duraiappah, who was brought to Peel in 2019 on a mandate to create progressive change, says the move represents a meaningful attempt by him to respond to movements such as Black Lives Matter and create equity. “I am the one single person that can control my system here, which is policing,” he told The Pointer Wednesday. “We recognize the public might have heard this before and they also might be sceptical about what change might look like.”
He believes an agreement with OHRC means there will be consequences for failing to deliver this promise. He says that should separate this announcement from broken promises in the past. “Should I not deliver on it over the years … we know the Commission can now bind us to it,” Duraiappah added.
Regardless, community advocates in Peel are deeply sceptical of the announcement. Years of disappointment have created a lack of trust in the force.
Kola Iluyomade, a vocal community advocate at the forefront of efforts to bring change at the Peel District School Board, said he is not optimistic about the announcement. Referencing the police’s track record of breaking trust with diverse communities, including officers refusing to cooperate with the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), he fears the provincial human rights watchdog is being taken for a ride.
“This is really a leap of faith for the Ontario Human Rights Commission because, not only are you talking about recommendations, you’re talking about an MOU (memorandum of understanding),” he told The Pointer. “The police have not changed.”
Ranjit Khatkur, another community advocate and former vice principal, was equally unimpressed. “I think it’s just another institutional strategy to allay any real change,” she told The Pointer. Khatkur was at the heart of criticism lodged against former chief Jennifer Evans and, with the support of others, forced a vital equity and diversity audit of PRP.
The equity audit she helped push to the top of the agenda was eventually published in 2019 and painted a disturbing picture of culture within the force. According to 2017 data, 20 percent of uniform staff were racialized (425, out of a total uniform complement of 2080), while PRP’s jurisdiction, Brampton and Mississauga, includes 65 percent of residents who identify as visible minorities and Indigenous.
The report found 79 percent of Peel Police employees who took part in focus groups had experienced harassment or discrimination within PRP, while 90 percent of participants reported witnessing such behaviour. One anonymous employee laid out a view shared by many who were part of the audit. “Peel Regional Police on the outside makes it look like we are an inclusive place and value diversity. From my experiences, senior management believe quite the opposite. They pose for pictures, say all the right things but then behind closed doors, actions are very different,” the unidentified staff member wrote.
Some of the comments of PRP officers from last year's alarming equity/diversity audit
The force was dogged by allegations of widespread racism when its own data showed officers had targeted Black individuals in carding stops, known in Peel as street checks, at more than three times the rate compared to whites.
Shortly after the media reported the shocking figures, the force quietly stopped doing almost any carding, even though legislation allows the practice, as long as human rights violations do not occur.
After a tenure characterized by a combative relationship with the community, Evans, who adamantly defended her force’s disgraceful carding record, retired in 2019. PRP’s new leader says he has fresh ideas, but his work is dogged by ghosts of the past.
“They think this is action, it’s not,” Khatkur, who co-founded the Peel Coalition Against Racial Discrimination, added. “It really is just institutions finding ways of not really taking this seriously, but deceiving people like me and you by suggesting something is happening. And then two years later, three years later, four years later, they sign something else because nothing comes out of the commitments they have made in terms of real action.”
Some would suggest OHRC is being naive, others worry it is setting a dangerous precedent by lending its endorsement to an organization with a history like the Peel Regional Police. Chadha, OHRC Chief Commissioner and a Brampton resident herself, told The Pointer she sensed a genuine desire for change from Duraiappah. Equally, she stressed she would not hesitate to withdraw support if she, as a human rights expert, felt publicity was the focus instead of progress.
“I’m concerned, just like everybody else in my organization, about having our credibility co-opted, but I am willing to do this in good faith right now because of lessons learned and wanting to improve the situation for my family and my friends in this community,” she said. “Am I optimistic? Cautiously so, but I’m still optimistic.”
The lack of faith on display from many in the region is rooted in the force’s history. Evans, a leading proponent of carding, which research has shown does deep harm to Black communities, left a legacy of mistrust between police and the community. Critics point to past injustices including an ongoing HRTO battle by a decorated South Asian-Canadian officer, BJ Sandhu, denied a promotion based on his race, the shackling of a 6-year-old Black girl and a leaked email from Deputy Chief Randy Patrick (who was promoted in May) alleging Khatkur had “incited hatred” against police in a deputation she made to the Police Services Board in 2016.
More comments by PRP officers from last year's equity/diversity audit
“I’ve asked for an apology at one of the board meetings, I’ve never had an apology to this day,” Khatkur said. “These are the sorts of things I would have expected the chief to go in there and begin to remedy.”
Before foundations can be laid for renewed trust, past harm must be addressed.
“We want the truth and accountability before any reconciliation,” Iluyomade said. “Talk about the hurt that you are causing knowingly and recklessly. Talk about the issues of why you came into schools and you targeted Black lives, Black children. Talk about that.”
That conversation is one Chadha and the OHRC say they welcome. In her interview with The Pointer, she asked advocates to lay those demands out during the consultation. With the most critical advocates engaged, any plans considered by the board in early 2021 would represent the needs of the community and do not just reflect a plan created by police brass in isolation.
“I find it a profoundly important suggestion and one I wish would be on the record when we consult,” she said. “I would very much like somebody to stand up in a deputation and say ‘looking forward is great, but you can’t go forward without [the] truth of the past’ ... I hope we hear that from the community.”
Duraiappah agreed with the principle of making peace with the past, but when presented with individual examples, he stopped short of a commitment. “We do want to close the book on things that are lingering from the past and the history,” he said. “If there are elements that require us to reflect, be thoughtful, make changes and, where appropriate, engage people who have been affected by it, I will absolutely do that.”
It’s unclear why he hasn’t done that on his own, a year into the job.
Looking mostly forward in his answers, he said he wanted to stop such incidents occurring again. Citing the example of the 6-year-old who was shackled by two officers, which he described as “an ongoing discussion and process”, he pivoted to talk about how a consultation around the School Resource Officer (SRO) program demonstrated his force’s attempts to learn. He did not condemn the actions of the two officers, despite an HRTO ruling concluding they were motivated, in part, by her race.
On the issue of Sandhu and whether he would intervene to avoid another HRTO hearing in November which will surely show the force in a bad light and extend the officer’s suffering, Duraiappah said it was complicated. “Some of these things aren’t within my control to do, much as it might appear [that way] or the community or individuals feel I can go in and completely turn around some of the outcomes that occurred before I got here. Unfortunately, not all of them, factually, can be done,” he said. “There are some legal parameters that define it.”
The fact is, in the Sandhu case, and in one involving internal Police Services Act charges against Inspector Raj Biring, who faces punishment for using the Punjabi word for s**t during a recruitment interview when he was trying to make a point to a prospective candidate, the chief has immense sway. Biring was charged by Evans shortly after he testified in Sandhu’s human rights case, and has been in limbo for years while the matter stalls. If the new chief wanted to show his commitment to changing the discriminatory culture, he could intervene, as it’s the chief who brings forward PSA charges.
Instead, Biring’s case, which could end up in court, might become a huge embarrassment for the chief and proof that his words don’t match his actions.
He steered the bulk of his answers to the future.
The chief wants to leave the past where it is and move on to solutions he can control. It’s a brave strategy and, understandably, he wants to be judged on his own record, not that of his predecessors. But when that record includes inaction on files such as Sandhu’s and Biring’s, getting the community to buy in will be tough.
“I can always say I am not anti-police; I am anti-oppression,” Iluyomade added. “I am anti-racist and I’m anti-brutality … The trust is truly broken.”
Peel Police Association union president Adrian Woolley
Examples of intolerance within the Peel Regional Police can be found in the present as well as the past. As The Pointer has previously reported, Constable Adrian Woolley, Peel Regional Police Association president, who is the public face of the rank-and-file officers, has a recent history of making intolerant, discriminatory and offensive remarks on his public Twitter account.
Woolley was also convicted of driving drunk, after being clocked last year going 74 kilometres over the speed limit while his blood alcohol level was almost 50 percent above the legal limit.
Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, spoke at length of his anger and frustration at Woolley’s posts, considering he is supposed to represent two of the most diverse cities in the world. Sharing various examples from Woolley’s highly politicized online activity in a September interview, Farooq accused him of insidious tactics. He said, as elected leader of the union, his online conduct made a mockery of any progressive stances Peel police as a whole says it is taking.
Through the summer and early fall, Woolley took various stances on issues sweeping North America. In one example, he denigrated Somalians by retweeting a post that equated the country’s capital with lawlessness and destruction, he mocked Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and a walk-out protest by NBA players over the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Woolley’s Twitter account lists his position as union leader for officers in Peel, a role he holds as their spokesperson. It would not be unreasonable for the public to take his statements as a barometer of the prevailing culture within the force, after all, the officers voted for him.
Despite his strong stance on changing the culture of his organization and rebuilding trust with the community, Duraiappah refused to call Woolley out.
“He has obviously got a strong perspective on matters and that is totally within his right to do that,” the chief said. “I have my own mandate and trajectory that I am continuing with. A lot of these things are, for me, detractors and noise I can’t control.”
It’s not just Woolley. Another executive member of the police association, Constable Marty Kirwan, openly tweets his support of U.S. President Donald Trump, carding and his disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both union executives have openly mocked Crombie, who is not just the progessive Mississauga mayor who has voiced her strong support for BLM and police reform, she is a member of the board that governs the force.
It’s unclear if the chief is perhaps fearful of backlash by officers such as Woolley and Kirwan, who publicly and very openly challenge any support to reform PRP. They, not the chief, seem to set the tone for the force’s culture, and the residents of Brampton and Mississauga can see what they represent which is splashed across social media.
Dealing with policy moving forward and reshaping the force is Duraiappah’s stated priority, but the chief is taking a cautious approach. Asked if he had set a target for visible minority officer recruitment numbers or what year the force aimed to employ an officer complement with at least 50 percent visible minority members, he could not answer. A follow-up message from a police spokesperson failed to elaborate further, but said 34 of the most recent 57 recruits were racialized.
Duraiappah’s decision not to condemn Woolley’s behaviour, while trying to move on from history, suggests the problems that abounded under Evans are something to be avoided, not addressed. The approach could make it hard for some in the community to swallow his message.
Chadha says communities will shape exactly how PRP and the OHRC move forward. She asked advocates and residents, sceptical or not, to take part in a process she promises the people will control.
“I anticipate the communities will tell us they want independent monitoring,” she said. “I anticipate the communities are going to tell us they want transparency, they want ongoing consultation… I anticipate they’re going to want the data collection to be open and available for analysis beyond the internal Peel Police.”
“I am not prescribing things, I am looking to the community to tell me what is it they need to rebuild a constructive relationship with the police.”
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 647 561-4879
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.
Submit a correction about this story