Peel Police and Human Rights Commission will detail partnership to eradicate systemic racism
In October last year, Peel Regional Police and the Ontario Human Rights Commission unveiled an unprecedented partnership. The two organizations promised to work closely to create an enforceable framework focused on bringing equity and inclusion to the troubled police force.
When the announcement was unveiled in principle, there was a feeling of déjà vu for many advocates in Peel. Despite the word “historic” being plastered across the communications material, community members were wary that the move was little more than a public relations campaign to create the perception of change.
The announcement promised that PRP and the OHRC would work together to develop a binding framework to hold the force accountable if it continues to fail to reflect the two cities it serves at all levels of the police department. It did not detail what the framework would look like and sceptical residents were told to expect results from the process by “early 2021”.
Delays, partly related to staffing and COVID-19, mean the first official update on the agreement is scheduled to be presented to the Peel Regional Police Services Board on May 28. It will be a key moment, offering a glimpse for members of the public to judge if the partnership can deliver meaningful change.
“Although we were hopeful that we would be further along, we are very pleased with the progress we are making and PRP’s commitment to ensure that the right steps are taken and recommendations are methodically evaluated,” Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, Ena Chadha, told The Pointer.
The memorandum of understanding between PRP and the OHRC, now entitled Human Rights Project, will include the development of a charter for the force. Details are still being finalized and will be unveiled at May’s meeting, but data collection and analysis is a significant focus of the OHRC’s work.
Regular data collection and analysis can form the spine of equity and inclusion policies, creating clear metrics to identify problems, solutions and progress. Used correctly, data can create a path to wide scale transformation and ensure PRP’s equity and diversity work moves beyond lip service.
Research shows that institutions and organizations unwilling to collect race and ethnicity-based data generally have the worst equity and inclusion records, which often causes internal problems, low morale and poor performance overall.
In 2017, the OHRC expressed its concern to the provincial government when it passed the Anti-Racism Act, because the new legislation did not require the collection of race-based data within public institutions such as police forces.
The OHRC pressed the Province to change this “by requiring select public sector organizations to collect and analyze race-based data, especially in key sectors such as health care, corrections, law enforcement, education, and child welfare.”
In a letter at the time to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Anti-Racism Directorate, the rights commission stated: “The OHRC’s recent consultation report entitled Under Suspicion documents numerous concerns about systemic racial discrimination in the above-noted sectors. The OHRC and the ARD share the goals of eliminating systemic racial discrimination and promoting equality and, for many years, the OHRC has called for the collection of human rights data, including race-based data, because we know that it is crucial to advancing these goals.”
The communication referred to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which has called for in-depth data collection. “In its Concluding Observations on Canada, the CERD noted with concern that, without comprehensive disaggregated statistical data, it could not fully evaluate whether African-Canadians, ethnic groups, Indigenous peoples, and non-citizens enjoyed civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights." It called on Canada to “systemically collect disaggregated data in all relevant ministries and departments to improve monitoring and evaluation of the implementation and impact of policies to eliminate racial discrimination and inequality.”
The United Nations, in the same year, had issued a troubling report on the status of equity and inclusion issues impacting African-Canadians in public institutions: “[T]here is a serious lack of race-based data and research, which could inform prevention, intervention and treatment strategies for African Canadians. The authorities acknowledged that disaggregated data along racial and ethnic lines was necessary to understand the human rights concerns of African Canadians.”
The OHRC told the Province that, “Relying on individual organizations to collect data at their discretion is inconsistent with the ambitious goals of the Anti-Racism Act and the recent comments of the CERD or UN Working Group. On a more practical level, given that implementation will require expertise and resources, it is unrealistic to expect organizations to opt-in to doing so. Without action on the part of government, many organizations will fail to identify and monitor systemic racism and fail to eliminate racial disparities, which may lead to violations of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.”
However, as issues within the Peel police force grew too troubling to ignore, including a carding program that targeted African-Canadians at more than three times the rate compared to white residents in Brampton and Mississauga, it became clear to the OHRC, which continued to receive complaints about the force, that a specific intervention was needed.
The case of former Inspector B.J. Sandhu, which was heard by the OHRC’s partner organization, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, revealed an alarming culture of systemic racism and widespread discrimination fostered by the force.
An equity and diversity audit was ordered by the Peel Police Services Board, after community groups demanded action, and the findings released in 2019 confirmed what the scathing tribunal decision had concluded based on the evidence in the Sandhu case.
The force has refused to reflect the two cities it serves, where about two-thirds of residents are not white. About 90 percent of the force’s uniform officers were white, when the tribunal first heard evidence in the Sandhu case and those numbers only began to improve after widespread public attention highlighted Peel police’s failure to reflect the communities it serves.
Beleaguered former chief Jennifer Evans – who adamantly defended the racist carding program and refused to apologize to Sandhu despite decades of chronic racism that he endured, including the denial of promotion – announced in 2018 that she was stepping down.
The board hired Chief Nishan Duraiappah in late 2019 to turn things around, and the agreement with the OHRC is seen as a key to finding out if he is serious about creating a diverse, modern police force to serve two of the most racially dynamic cities in the world.
Included in the new charter with the OHRC will be a process to track milestones for training, data collection, policy and procedural review. Experts will be brought on to collect and analyze the data so the force can begin to learn in real time, instead of waiting for audits that simply confirm what data already show.
Increased emphasis, using a human rights lens, will also be placed on crisis intervention and de-escalation, as well as working with children in crisis.
Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah signed up to a partnership with the OHRC last year
According to Chadha, PRP has already retained “authoritative experts” to develop human rights-oriented data collection methodology. “These experts will, over the next three years, analyze the race-based information and report on the findings, including examining a range of police and civilian interactions, such as interactions [with] police stops, arrests and use of force,” she said.
The new approach, still to be approved and finalized by the Police Services Board, could mark a significant departure from past policies and culture within PRP.
In 2019, PRP finally published the equity audit of its force. It was pushed to the top of the agenda by vocal community members, and showed that PRP simply did not reflect the community it is supposed to serve.
This continued lack of proper representation is a violation of the Police Services Act, which states that all Ontario forces need to uphold “The need for sensitivity to the pluralistic, multiracial and multicultural character of Ontario society” and “The need to ensure that police forces are representative of the communities they serve.”
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 or Indigenous. The disconnect is problematic for the force, leaving it in a position where officers lack the cultural and linguistic competency to police residents professionally, especially in high pressure situations.
The report found 79 percent of Peel Police employees who took part in focus groups had experienced harassment or discrimination within the force, while 90 percent of participants reported witnessing such behaviour. The words of one employee, quoted anonymously in the 2019 audit, summed up the situation.
“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.
Chief Duraiappah was given the mandate to change a deeply discriminatory culture, which has been embedded into the fabric of the organization for decades, as confirmed in the decision in the Sandhu case, which described a force built on systemic attitudes that are racist.
The evidence accepted by the tribunal included the routine forwarding of racist jokes, the posting of a racist cartoon in the office of a bureau head, the open mocking of diversity initiatives even by senior officers who had been ordered to do such training after an earlier racial-profiling ruling by the tribunal, and clear discrimination in hiring and promotions processes.
Sandhu, a highly decorated officer who was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for his contributions to policing, one of the highest honours ever awarded to any member of the Peel force, was discriminated against because of his race and ethnicity when he was refused entry into the promotional process to the inspector level. His case revealed he was far more qualified than the other officers who were welcomed into the competition and testimony included shocking accounts of rampant racism among senior officers, including sworn evidence that investigations in racialized communities were discredited and not considered real police work.
This culture is still present in some of the highest reaches of the force.
Adrian Woolley, the President of the Peel Police Association, the union that represents frontline officers, has recently come under fire for his own behaviour. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) criticized Woolley for a series of social media posts, including some that were critical of the Black Lives Matter movement and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and made disparaging suggestions about the Muslim community in Somalia.
“It’s beyond me how anyone at [the] Peel Regional Police can say the words ‘equity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, when someone like him is the head of the association,” Mustafa Farooq, CEO of NCCM, told The Pointer in September. He accused Woolley of “dog-whistling” in his posts.
After the OHRC and PRP announced their agreement, Woolley criticized it in a newsletter sent to union members.
“The Chief’s message two weeks ago regarding systemic racism was divisive to say the least,” Woolley wrote in his column, Inside the Thin Blue Line, viewed by The Pointer. He said, while some members agreed with Chief Duraiappah’s efforts, “the actual impact of his statements have been almost entirely negative.”
Woolley eventually issued a joint statement with Duraiappah, saying they would work together to change the force. “This type of work is about improving policing as a system, and [we] believe the same work should occur across all human services,” they said.
Woolley (left) has been accused of “dog-whistling” and criticized the OHCR & PRP partnership when it was announced.
Against this backdrop, with a reluctant union, a history of equity issues and several high profile Human Rights Tribunal complaints, the Police Services Board meeting at the end of May will take on extra meaning. Team members from the OHRC and PRP have a challenging task in front of them to convince the community the data and equity work will transform a tainted force.
“This process will take time but I am convinced that this is [the] best way to achieve the changes we all want to see,” Chadha said. “We know that systemic change can only occur and be successful through systematically targeting the root causes of disparities and establishing sustainable, measurable standards.”
The legally binding elements of the deal announced in October are not yet finalized. After presenting to the police services board, the board and the OHRC will approach the Human Rights Tribunal to make the deal official. Then, if Peel Police fails to live up to any of the commitments it signs up to, the Tribunal can issue a binding order to bring change.
“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,” Chadha explained in October. “For example, the Tribunal could order the police to hire external consultants to monitor the arrangements.”
To make potential changes meaningful, community consultation is key.
Once PRP and OHRC have their initial framework in place, it will go out to the community for consultation. It is this phase where skeptical advocates can make their mark on the process through surveys, committees and deputations to the police board. The OHRC has urged the police’s biggest critics to get involved and to shape the process, not to dismiss it out of hand.
“We are monitoring day-to-day issues and our involvement in this initiative with the PRP and its Board does not preclude the OHRC from exercising any of its other functions and powers under the Human Rights Code when it believes it is in the public interest to do so,” Chadha added.
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