Release of human rights recommendations marks ‘pivotal point’ in Peel Police’s overdue response to systemic discrimination
After almost three years of behind-the-scenes work, Peel residents are finally getting a glimpse into the early policy framework of an ongoing partnership between one of the province’s largest police forces and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. A new strategy will address systemic discrimination within Peel Police and abusive behaviour by its officers, both in the community and inside the organization.
On June 23, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), Peel Regional Police (PRP) and Peel Police Services Board (PPSB) released a draft document of recommendations to address and dismantle systemic racism and discrimination in the regional police force, while establishing accountability and transparency measures. The document is a culmination of work that began in 2020 to develop and implement strategies to identify and combat systemic racism in policing after a searing report revealed the inner workings of a force dogged by allegations of widespread misconduct.
“It's been very complex and difficult at times to manage the recommendations that were brought forward by the OHRC in terms of turning them into operational aspects,” staff superintendent Dirk Niles told the police services board on June 23. “The work is just beginning. We have to now look at the continuous work of improving and implementing as we go forward.”
“We are at a very pivotal point in this human rights project,” Len Carby, a long-time advocate for equity and inclusion and the latest addition to the PPSB, added.
The initial report includes 64 recommendations guided by the OHRC Policy on Eliminating Racial Profiling in Law Enforcement that set the foundation for preventing and addressing racial discrimination in Peel by examining a range of policies, from enhancing regular engagement, recognizing racial profiling and improving training for officers, to increasing data collection and forming anti-racism action plans. The recommendations are based on feedback received from community members during consultations with Peel residents in 2022 and early 2023 as well as input from the community-led Anti-Racism Advisory Committee (ARAC).
After senior leaders failed for years to recognize the desperate need to change the status quo which fostered a toxic culture, cultivated through decades of harm by an institution meant to serve and protect the community it serves, in 2020, the OHRC, Peel police and the police services board signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) known as the Human Rights Project. The MOU committed to changing the landscape and culture of policing in Peel by developing and implementing legally binding strategies to identify and address systemic racism in policing, promote transparency and accountability, and enhance racialized communities’ trust in policing throughout Mississauga and Brampton, the two communities patrolled by the force.
In a joint statement on the release of the recommendations, ARAC said while the Peel police force is “making significant strides,” the committee acknowledges “the work to address systemic racism is multifaceted and complex.”
“Peel Regional Police is committed to being the most progressive, innovative, and inclusive service in Canada. We will continue to work with our communities and take the actions needed to strengthen public trust and accountability in our service,” Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah, hired to change the force’s culture, said in the statement.
The recommendations and the partnership with OHRC were triggered following a difficult-to-stomach audit, demanded by the public and completed by the Canadian Centre for Diversity & Inclusion in 2019, which found widespread problems with systemic discrimination (including gender-based bias), fear of harassment and punishment reported by officers who participated in the damning survey.
The blistering audit reinforced many of the complaints and concerns that have been raised for decades by local advocates about a police force that doesn’t represent the diverse community it serves and creates barriers for its own racialized members. Of the PRP employees who took part in focus groups as part of the audit, 79 percent reported experiencing harassment or discrimination within the force, while 90 percent of participants reported witnessing such behaviour.
A 2019 audit revealed 79 percent of Peel police officers who participated in focus groups reported experiencing harassment or discrimination within the force, while 90 percent reported witnessing such behaviour.
(Graphic from CCDI/The Pointer files)
The report revealed one of the biggest obstacles preventing any change around the underlying culture of systemic discrimination was the mindset of those that held senior leadership roles. Of the PRP leaders in place in 2017-18 roughly a third “indicated their belief that these systemic oppressions do not exist within PRP.” The report stated others suggested they believe “these oppressions manifest only as individual acts of meanness” and don’t make “the connection that these oppressions are systemic in our society and therefore are also in our organizations.”
These attitudes among many senior leaders reflected the alarming behaviour exhibited by top brass, from the rank of chief down, over decades.
In 2011, after pressure mounted on the force to apologize to a Black 60-year-old Brampton resident named Isaac Williams, who was detained and interrogated by officers for a break-and-enter committed by a man six inches shorter and 40 years younger, one of the constables involved issued an apology acknowledging racial profiling was the reason for the egregious mistake, but the chief at the time, Mike Metcalf, denied this was the case.
He took the same stance in a landmark Ontario human rights case that resulted in an alarming 2007 decision.
After a 2003 incident involving explicit racial profiling, Jacqueline Nassiah won her fight against Peel Police.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Tribunal that handles hearings in cases found the Black woman was racially profiled by police and subjected to disturbing conduct.
The Commission released a statement at the time:
“In February 2003, Peel Police were contacted to investigate a possible shop-lifting allegation at a large department store in Mississauga. The Tribunal found that Ms. Nassiah had been wrongly apprehended by store security on suspicion of stealing a low-priced item despite her repeated and impassioned denials. The Tribunal further found that Richard Elkington, a Peel police officer, conducted a discriminatory investigation that included:
Stereotypically assuming that a Black suspect might not speak English
Assuming that the White security guard was telling the truth and that the Black suspect was not, without properly looking at all the evidence, including a videotape of the alleged theft, which exonerated her
Adopting an “assumption of guilt” approach to the investigation by immediately demanding that Ms. Nassiah produce the missing item
Unnecessarily arranging for a second body search after the first one had demonstrated that she did not have the allegedly stolen item
Continuing with the investigation, rather than releasing Ms. Nassiah, even after the second body search confirmed that she did not have the stolen item
Spending up to one hour pursuing an allegation of theft, in the face of fragile evidence, for an item worth less than $10.”
The Peel Police officer called the woman a “f---ing foreigner” and “threatened to take her to jail if she didn’t produce the missing item.” Nassiah was eventually released after store security realized they had made an error.
Peel police refused to work through a mediated settlement in the case, and chief Metcalf publicly stated he did not agree with the findings and would not endorse the requirement for racial-sensitivity training ordered by the Human Rights Commission.
The following binding directives were handed down to the force, as a result of the case, but they were largely ignored, as revealed in evidence in later human rights cases against Peel police:
Peel police must hire an external consultant with expertise in racial profiling to assist in the preparation of the new directive and training materials
Peel police must provide the name of the expert and the contents of the new directive and training materials to the Commission for its review to confirm compliance with the Tribunal’s orders;
Peel police must ensure that all new recruits, current officers, the officer in this case, Mr. Elkington, new and current supervisors are trained on the new directive, the social science literature on racial profiling and the current case law, and advise the Commission when such training is complete.
The chief human rights commissioner, at the time, Barbara Hall, stated, “Ms. Nassiah’s experience reveals the unfortunate reality of racial profiling in our society… The Commission is always willing to work with police services to effect change. But when such change is not forthcoming, the Commission will pursue similar public interest remedies as ordered by the Tribunal in this case.”
Metcalf openly said he had little interest in cooperating with the human rights commission.
In 2013 Peel Police and Metcalf were named in a proposed $125 million racial profiling lawsuit (which did not move forward but provided significant evidence of systemic discrimination) filed in Ontario Superior Court by two advocacy groups, including the Black Action Defence Committee, and civilian plaintiffs.
The proposed lawsuit included evidence that in 2000 Andrew Hewitt-Morris, then 13, was walking with a friend after playing basketball when a Peel police constable approached and asked why they did not yet have a criminal record. He allegedly said their names would be put into a “gang book” and if they were seen by police in the future “red flags” would be raised.
That was more than 20 years ago.
Metcalf’s successor, Jennifer Evans, a protege of his, carried on the pattern of discriminatory leadership at the very top of Peel Police.
Evans fought long and hard to continue the practice of police carding, or "street checks" which involves officers randomly stopping people and demanding their personal information, without reference to a particular crime being investigated. When demand rose for evidence of its usefulness, Evans was able to cite only six instances over more than 35 years in which carding had helped to solve crimes, and most of those were minor ones where other evidence made it easy to bring charges forward.
Internal data eventually published by the media showed Black residents were more than three times as likely to be stopped in carding encounters by Peel police compared to white residents.
In 2016, Evans gave an interview on CBC Radio in response to the carding controversy. "We talk about people being stopped under suspicious circumstances while they're not in their areas, so 76 percent of our street checks in Peel were people being documented because they weren't in the area where they lived," she said, "and for some reason officers were not coming up with reasons why they were in that area."
"What's wrong with being in an area where you don't live?" the CBC host, who seemed perplexed by her comment, asked.
The discriminatory attitude of Evans, who refused to even acknowledge the severe harm carding caused within the Black communities that had been targeted for decades, reflected a top-down culture within the force that put the almost 80 percent of Brampton residents who identify as visible minorities on notice, human rights advocate Ranjit Khatkur, co-founder of the anti-racism group, P-CARD, and the person at the forefront of the effort to conduct the 2019 internal audit, told The Pointer at the time. "Could someone, anyone, Chief Evans, any of her senior officers, a criminology expert or cultural anthropologist, anyone at all please explain to the people of Brampton how a police officer can spot a random person walking down the street or in a park or at a store, and instantly figure out that they're not in their area?" she said, after Evans had suggested that Black residents could expect to be carded if they ever left “the area where they lived.”
Chief Duraiappah was hired in 2019 by the police board specifically to change the toxic discriminatory culture of the organization responsible for protecting residents in Canada’s most diverse region. He is the first non-white person to hold the job, but has made it clear that highlighting what happened in the past, before he arrived, is not the approach to follow. Duraiappah has instead skirted the historic problems, publicly, while offering few details of what he is doing behind the scenes to carry out the change mandate he was hired to execute.
During a 2020 interview on The Pointer’s What’s the Point? podcast, Ena Chadha, former OHRC chief commissioner, said the “egregious” events that were taking place in Peel, both internally within the organization and out in the community, “coalesced” into a critically needed conversation with Peel police about whether its leaders were willing to engage with the OHCR and enter into a legally binding framework to address systemic change.
“Our call to action was premised on the fact that you have to involve racialized communities — Black communities, South Asian communities, Muslim communities and Indigenous communities and their organizations — in this discussion because we’ve known for a long time that these communities have been victimized by policing and over-policing in the GTA,” she told The Pointer. “It doesn’t end at the Steeles border.
“The status quo is no longer acceptable. We are hurting, arresting, striking, shooting and killing Black community members. We are in an egregious situation.”
The 2019 probe of the force described a police department that does not represent the diverse community it serves. The audit report found the toxic culture promoted within Peel police raised barriers for racialized members of the force, punished those who speak out and turned a blind eye to systemic bias. The Ontario legislation that serves as the guideline for policing in the province, the Police Services Act, explicitly states that a force must reflect the community it serves, yet data from 2017 of the force’s uniform staff revealed only 20 percent were racialized while about 70 percent of residents in PRP’s jurisdiction, Brampton and Mississauga, were visible minorities.
The report found a major disconnect between the opinions of employees and senior leadership who refused to acknowledge the systemic problems within the force. The CCDI report revealed almost three-quarters of police leaders and members of the board “do not seem to recognize that barriers exist or [believe they] rarely exist for certain groups at Peel Regional Police.” It added a majority of employees with the PRP described the organization as “change-averse” and “elitist.”
As a member of ARAC that has been disappointed with the pace of the overall progress of PRP toward implementing the memorandum that was introduced and signed by OHRC and Peel police in 2020, David Bosveld said the new draft document outlining recommendations “brings an opportunity to improve the service’s delivery of policing to people and communities that have been most harmed by policing and the racism within the culture and behaviour of PRP that had long been documented.”
While it is too soon to determine the full scale of what change these recommendations might facilitate, once the document is finalized the policies will be binding and Bosveld said then the community “will be in a position to judge the effectiveness of the proposed reforms, monitoring, training and commitments of the parties.”
Now, with Peel Regional Police’s partnership with the OHRC, a chief steering the organization toward change and the creation of ARAC, the police force is working to show a commitment to finally combat critical issues that have long been left unaddressed. The police force has only recently shown a willingness to acknowledge issues of racism in policing under Chief Duraiappah, who has done what his predecessors refused to, agreeing to reformative change as a key objective of the police force he oversees. If implemented properly, the human rights recommendations could mark the first strong signal of reform inside the country’s third largest municipal police department.
Chief Nishan Duraiappah previously said his organization has recognized that systemic change needs to occur.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Of the new recommendations laid out in the report, under the heading of acknowledgment and engagement, the Human Rights Commission recommends PRP and the police board hold engagement sessions with the community to identify desired outcomes that can be created and tracked to ensure these outcomes are fulfilled. This goes with a recommendation to create a “community experiences portal” for local residents to share thoughts and experiences, which the board said it will explore ideas for.
The Commission also recommends PPSB create a community renewal fund “dedicated to advancing community safety and wellbeing initiatives for Indigenous, Black and racialized communities,” which the force has agreed to. Although there was no clarity on what the renewal fund will look like in terms of how many dollars are dedicated to it over what period of time, or the improvements or outcomes that will stem from it, Bosveld said “any proposal that takes funds away from enforcement and dedicates them to communities is a step in the right direction.”
Other new initiatives the force has agreed to include the release of public disclosure of traffic stop data, looking at race, indigenous ancestry, age and gender of the driver and witnesses. This also includes, “The requirement that officers approach all interactions with Black, Indigenous and other racialized persons, including youth and adults, in a manner that takes into account histories of being over-policed and use alternatives to charges and arrests, where appropriate.”
The recommendations also call for a prohibition on street carding, which for decades saw Black people targeted in random police stops at more than three times the rate compared to white people. PRP’s response to the recommendation notes that although the force is unable to amend the policy for carding and street checks since they are governed under provincial legislation, Peel police assures the force has “processes and procedures to prevent officers from performing carding and street checks,” although it is unclear what those processes are. The force has also agreed to ensure the recommendation “is instilled through improved techniques, heightened training, and communication.”
Other recommendations currently being considered as part of the draft document include the creation of a tracking system for allegations of biased policing, including racial profiling. Peel police say this recommendation will be approached in stages “by defining processes to identify allegations of biased policing and ensure these are tracked in the Internal Affairs Pro system.
“In collaboration with data collection and training experts, PRP will identify key performance indicators/benchmarks that would provide early warning for PRP to take appropriate measures to prevent/address these allegations.”
The force will also be phasing in systems to track whether Black or Indigenous persons are overrepresented in certain charges like trespassing and out-of-sight driving offenses (driving without a license, driving without valid insurance, driving while suspended). This data will be released publicly with the goal of making it annual, according to the recommendations. Peel police have also agreed to create a Race and Identity-Based Data Community Advisory Panel to develop race and identity-based data and when data reveals race-based disparities in service delivery, PRP should be committed to take “immediate steps to inform the PRPSB and enact an action plan to eliminate disparity within one year,” meaning when problems are identified they will be addressed directly as quickly as possible.
Peel Police headquarters in Mississauga.
(The Pointer files)
When making decisions about promotions, the recommendations outline that supervisors “should consider an officer’s skill and experience in dealing with Emotionally Disturbed Persons, members of the Black community and racialized communities, including their ability to de-escalate and negotiate during crisis situations.” Other factors to be considered should include outreach and engagement with racialized communities and involvement with anti-racist work. The force has also agreed to conduct and publicly report on a workplace census every two years.
“PRP should publicly commit to working toward ensuring the police service and its leadership is as diverse as the community it serves by 2025, including in supervisory and leadership positions,” the recommendation states.
This recommendation comes after decades of barriers faced by Peel police officers who have sought promotion.
In 2017 the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) ruled the force discriminated against highly decorated officer Baljiwan (BJ) Sandhu, denying him a chance in 2013 to compete for promotion into the senior ranks based on his race and cultural background (details of the case can be read in the two-part series linked near the top of the article). The tribunal found Peel police didn't consider the portion of the 28-year veteran's work in diverse communities as "real police work” and that the service devalued his efforts in the South Asian community because it is “associated with the South Asian population” and therefore was “considered less valuable.”
The tribunal’s precedent-setting ruling found Peel Police devalued racialized officers and devalued policing of non-white communities, even though those communities represented the majority of residents who the force was supposed to protect.
The damning decision painted a dangerous picture of a mostly white police department unwilling to protect a mostly non-white community.
Disturbing evidence in the case showed the widespread effects of failed leadership within Peel police. It revealed racist language and actions commonly used by officers including those in senior ranks within the force and a frat-house culture that mocked diversity and did little, from leadership down, to change the bigoted culture. Racist cartoons and emails were shared among officers, along with racist jokes and racially demeaning names such as “Gunga Din” and “Paki task force,” were among the abhorrent pieces of evidence in the case, with leaders not only ignoring but often taking part in the racist behaviour.
The overwhelming evidence in the case showed Sandhu was far more qualified and deserving of a promotion to the rank of inspector than the white candidates who were allowed to compete for the jobs. Sandhu, despite his superior credentials and experience, was told he could not even apply.
Although the new recommendations address the value of diversity from a promotional standpoint, they fail to outline what mechanisms will be in place to ensure a more diverse recruitment and promotion process that is merit-based and representative of the community.
While many of the OHRC’s recommendations are new to the force, Peel police have already made progress on some of the recommendations, while other work is underway. This includes publicly apologizing for promoting a service that was racially-discriminatory, making a commitment to ending systemic racism and the creation of an Anti-Racism Advisory Committee. Other recommendations expand on existing mandates including a written apology acknowledging that “individual incidents involving the police may reflect systemic issues that need to be addressed by the service.”
PRP has also updated the force’s Racial Profiling/Biased-based policing policy to conform with the OHRC and its policy. This includes making the policy more direct and clear, recognizing “in human rights and criminal law” that racial profiling can happen even where race is one factor among other legitimate factors used to single someone out. The recommendation notes “extraordinary caution must be taken when using criminal profiles that include race or related grounds, even if these are coupled with other objective factors.
“No member of the PRP shall, in the course of an investigation, devote a lesser amount of time to an investigation because of race, colour, apparent ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin,” the updated policy adds.
A Mississauga Black Lives Matter rally after a string of shootings of Black residents by Peel Police officers.
(The Pointer files)
Peel police have been working to eliminate abuse among officers as well, updating its Racial Profiling Directive for officers to now require them to record details of any incidents they observe, and report the incident “to their immediate supervisor, or in cases of workplace violence, harassment or discrimination, also consider reporting the incident to the Human Rights Coordinator.” This also applies to use of force incidents in the field that could violate policy.
One of the most notable actions that is being checked off the list is the implementation of a “Human Rights centered training strategy” based on OHRC recommendations, which will be woven throughout “all aspects of aspects of training from a self-awareness perspective” and, under the five pillars, will increase an officer’s awareness of the history of racism in Canada, provide unconscious bias awareness, educate about procedural justice, highlight a trauma-informed approach and provide training on legislative authorities.
“The synergy of this training will give officers a holistic view of Biases in policing and the awareness recognition, and strategies to change their behavioural responses to interactions with Black, Indigenous and Racialized populations,” the report states.
Under the training regime for the history of racism in Canada, including negative policing, “The focus will be to educate on our own past and policing within the context of it, how this negative portrayal results in bias, both conscious and unconscious, being formed towards Black indigenous and racialized populations.” Unconscious bias awareness will include teaching strategies for recognizing and acknowledging officers’ biases and ways to counter them.
“Training is the PRP response to many of the recommendations including Human Rights and a trauma-informed approach which in principle should lead to better outcomes,” Bosveld said. “What remains to be seen is how quickly and completely this training can be implemented, how effective it will be, and then a review of the outcomes to determine the impact or lack thereof on the experiences of Black and other racialized people and communities in their interactions with PRP.”
These pillars of training will also identify the potential role of racial profiling or bias in incident response and use of force decisions, something desperately needed after data released by PRP in 2020 revealed Black residents were 3.5 times more likely to be involved in a use of force incident compared to the overall population of the region, reflecting a troubling reality that Black individuals represented 35 percent of all those who experienced use of force. In 2021, data found that Black residents still accounted for 32 percent of people involved in use of force incidents, despite only accounting for 9 percent of the population, showing that little progress had been made.
A 2019 ruling by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal found in a case against the Peel Regional Police Services Board two Peel police officers’ decision to handcuff the wrists and ankles behind the back of a six-year-old girl was motivated, in part, by her race. The tribunal decision determined the force used by the two officers during an incident at a Peel school in 2016 was “disproportionate to what was necessary to provide adequate control and amounts to a clear overreaction in the circumstances.” The tribunal ruled that while the officers “had a legitimate duty” to maintain safety it did not give them the authority to treat the young Black girl in a way they would “not have treated a white six-year-old child in the same circumstance.”
The force has also adopted a “zero harm/zero death policy” approach to use of force incidents. This includes zero tolerance for excessive force training, which has been implemented under the human rights training and is mandatory for all officers.
While a large focus of the report is placed on promoting ethnic and racial diversity in the force and within Peel police’s community response, one major area where the report falls short is the lack of representation from a gender-based perspective. Mention of gender is lightly woven throughout the report regarding use of force, traffic stops and arrests, and other issues and areas of policing, but is not directly addressed with a strategy to promote women in policing or how to respond to calls involving violence against women.
A 20-month investigation by the Globe and Mail found that in Canada, police dismissed 1 out of every 5 sexual-assault reports as “unfounded,” meaning the investigating officer believed the crime did not happen and it disappeared from public record. The investigation revealed the unfounded case rate in Canada from 2010 to 2014 was 19 percent. These numbers varied across the country. In Peel, roughly 25 percent of sexual assault reports were dismissed and categorized as baseless. Evidence suggests a large portion of these supposedly unfounded allegations actually involve violence and the failure of police to take reports seriously often puts women at even greater risk.
The lack of focus on the policing of violence against women comes on the heels of the Region of Peel declaring gender-based violence and intimate partner violence an epidemic across the region. Community advocates and organizations called on the Region to “commit to the necessary actions needed to address this growing health concern.” Violent crime against women continues to devastate communities, with visible minority women often victims of gender and race-based discrimination.
Peel police have been sharing race-based data reports for the last three years, but the force noted it will be working to expand this reporting to include a “full range of police-civilian interactions, including traffic and pedestrian stops, charges, arrests, releases and use of force.” Although the force has agreed in the recommendations to collect, analyze and publicly release human rights-based data annually, including relevant intersectional identity data, the recommendations do not address how policing of gender-based and intimate partner violence will be approached under an improved policy framework.
After ARAC’s input on the recommendations, community groups and individual members of the public will have an opportunity to share their views to help finalize binding recommendations later this year.
While the policies laid out by the OHRC are a starting point, Bosveld said the police board’s membership should be updated to always include representation from the Black community — something that is missing from the recommendations. He noted the board should lobby for this policy with the provincial government and the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards. The appointment of Len Carby to Peel’s police service board in April of this year marked the first time a Black man was placed in the role.
“The 64 recommendations have the potential to create incremental change and improvements or reforms to PRP and its board. I have yet to be convinced that reforms will eliminate racial disparities in policing, reduce the violence inflicted by the institution on Black and racialized communities or address the root issues that exist,” Bosveld said.
“I’m willing to engage in this process and have my mind changed if it turns out that PRP can defy the odds and allow itself to be deeply reformed, eliminate racial disparities and reduce their footprint in areas of the community where they are not particularly effective.”
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