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Justice (25-42)

Watchdog finds race disparity in SIU probes into conduct

October 18, 2023

Black, Indigenous Ontarians overrepresented in cases, report finds

Toronto Star: Black and Indigenous Ontarians are far more likely to be subject to police actions serious enough to lead to a Special Investigations Unit probe, the provincial watchdog says in a new report.

Between 2020 and 2021, a Black person was 3.5 times more likely to be involved in an SIU investigation than the Black share of the population — and an Indigenous person was nearly 6.25 times more likely, according to the agency’s first public review of race-based data, released Tuesday.

The SIU investigates deaths, serious injuries and allegations of sexual assault involving police officers in Ontario; most SIU investigations conclude without criminal charges.

“As with any public agency, the SIU must be vigilant in identifying and eliminating systemic racism wherever it may be found in its operations,” said SIU director Joseph Martino in a news release. “The collection and analysis of race-based data is a critical step in this process, as is its release to the public.”

The race-based data, which researchers say is incomplete, also shows overrepresentation in other racialized communities. People who identified as Latino and Middle Eastern were represented slightly more often than their share of the Ontario population, while East or Southeast Asian, South Asian and white people are either less frequently or significantly less frequently represented, the statistics show.

The data was collected on a voluntary basis from complainants and from officers under investigation over the course of one year, between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. In cases of deceased individuals, their families were surveyed.

The finding that Black and Indigenous individuals are particularly overrepresented in SIU cases echoes other recent studies of police bias, including a landmark 2022 Toronto police report that found “systemic discrimination” in how often Toronto officers use force.

It also reaffirms what Black people knew for decades, said Kingsley Gilliam, one of the founding members of the Black Action Defence Committee, whose advocacy in the 1980s was a catalyst for the formation of the SIU. “It is more of the same. We didn’t need the data. We live it,” he said.

The SIU report, prepared by Wilfrid Laurier University researchers, notes some significant limitations in the data. Of the 398 surveys distributed to people involved in SIU cases within the time frame, 98 — or 25 per cent — were returned. Only two per cent of the 460 surveys sent to police officers were returned. “There needs to be a better understanding of why people participated (or did not participate) in this survey,” says the report.

“It would be great to have much more participation from the police,” said Patrick Watson, one of the lead researchers and a criminologist at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies. “We’d like to know a lot more about how police officers are experiencing the investigative process” and “the racial dynamics of policing in Ontario,” he said.

Watson said he was somewhat impressed that a quarter of respondents were willing to participate, noting the majority were either survivors or family members of people killed in interactions with police. “That shows us a little bit about the buy in — that they’ve got a pretty compelling reason to engage with these types of exercises. I would imagine they’re looking for some sort of action in relation to their loved one’s case.”

Researchers outlined a number of recommendations to improve the quantity and quality of data collected by the SIU, including mandating investigators to routinely report the perceived race of individuals and police officers involved in SIU cases.

Bias in policing has been the focus of Star reporting for decades but has only been acknowledged in recent years by police services that are now mandated to collect racebased data.

The 2022 Toronto police report — which confirmed officers use more force on racialized people, especially Black people, more often — and a subsequent apology by then-Chief James Ramer met a mixed reaction from community members who argue discrimination has been known for “quite literally decades.”

It would be great to have much more participation from the police. We’d like to know a lot more about how police officers are experiencing the investigative process.