I wrote a piece for the Toronto Star last week saying our police force needs to acknowledge systemic anti-black racism, within its own ranks and in society at large. Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack has published an apparent rebuttal, in which he names me and twists my words. I can’t let that stand.
You can read McCormack’s full piece here. Excepts appear below in bold italics; my own commentary is in regular text.
Over the past few years, the Toronto Police Service has been the subject of accusations of racial profiling and biased policing. Most recently, on the anniversary of the Danzig shooting, an article on this page by journalist Desmond Cole stereotyped Toronto Police Service officers as anti-black racists.
I actually said Toronto police keep killing black people, particularly those who are in crisis or experiencing mental illness, and that at least half of all people killed by our police since 1988 have been black. These two facts are so solid that McCormack’s rebuttal doesn’t address or dispute them. Later in the piece, he does link disproportionate police encounters with black residents to “socio-economic factors such as poverty, unaffordable housing, lack of child-care, access to post-secondary education, unemployment and homelessness.”
Perhaps McCormack does not know that these social ills affect black people so unevenly because of systemic anti-black racism. It’s more likely, as I argued in my original piece, that he and many other police officials just don’t want to talk about it.
While I respect the right of any individual or group to express their opinions, the assumption that police-involved shootings are motivated by systemic racism, to the exclusion of any other possibility, is inaccurate and inflammatory.
Most powerful white people do not like it when black people talk about racism without blaming ourselves for it, or without insisting that “not all white people” are racist. If black people expose racism without qualification or apology, we are told we highlight race “to the exclusion of any other possibility.”
The truth is that white elites recoil at any mention of systemic racism, and refuse to take responsibility for racist outcomes in the societies they dominate. Instead they suggest, as McCormack does, that people like me use allegations of racism simply to garner sympathy and “stir public emotion.” When you are used to dominating people, you can even become jealous of their cries for justice.
I refuse to ignore the role of systemic racism, within policing and Canadian society. I refuse to allow police, who are in denial about their historical and modern propensity to kill innocent black people, to tell us when and how we should talk about racism in policing. McCormack is only comfortable using the term “systemic racism” to downplay or deny its existence in local policing. From that perspective, even one mention of systemic racism must feel like the whole, dreaded conversation.
Some have misrepresented police data to support their irresponsible accusations of racial discrimination. The use of census-based data to identify biased-policing, in the absence of other variables, is outright wrong. Their findings are not proof of a culture of biased policing. Assessing for bias is complicated. While the data may show some disparity, it is not sufficient to substantiate these allegations. This position is supported by the opinions of respected academics.
This is the main thrust of McCormack’s defence of police carding, the practice of stopping and documenting people who are not suspected of any crime. The Toronto Police Service has never voluntarily published data on carding or the impacts of racial profiling, and has refused repeated demands to do so. Police have not offered any data to explain why innocent black people have been so disproportionately carded. McCormack does not cite a single academic whom he claims shares his analysis. We’re still waiting.
These unsubstantiated allegations of racial discrimination are an attempt to stir public emotion and to justify knee-jerk policy changes to police practices.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says our police cannot detain us arbitrarily, as they have been doing through carding. It’s not knee-jerk to demand that this right be upheld. It’s not radical to say police must tell us why they are stopping and documenting us. Nor is it revolutionary to expect that if police take our personal info, they should provide a receipt of the interaction, as they currently do for traffic tickets.
Despite declining overall crime rates, shooting incidents in Toronto have increased by 48 per cent compared to last year and the number of victims killed or injured is up by 66 per cent.
These stats are accurate, but they don’t explain why police killed Andrew Loku, who never shot anyone but rather got shot and killed by his own police. The numbers don’t tell us why black people who don’t shoot anyone are treated like they might shoot someone, or are about to, or must have info about someone who did. McCormack cites general trends in crime to justify the specific mistreatment of black individuals. This explanation is extremely popular (see systemic racism) but it is irrelevant.
While many American police services have had police reform imposed upon them, we have been ahead of the curve by addressing the issue of bias through mandatory and non-mandatory training standards, policies and procedures, diversity hiring and community-based policing initiatives that are the envy of police services worldwide.
In an attempt to stop the Toronto Star from accessing and reporting on carding data, our police fought the newspaper for seven years. The public didn’t even know the practice existed and when we found out, the police tried to dismiss it and move on. McCormack and former chief Bill Blair then tried to discredit a 2014 study in which community members described how carding has affected them.
The Black Action Defense Committee was formed in 1989 after police shot three black people in a 15 month span — two of them, Lester Donaldson and Wade Lawson, died from their injuries. Police still refuse to confirm the number and proportion of black people they have wounded and killed since 1988, even though that information is part of the public record.
Unfounded allegations of discrimination based on statistical disparities and the postulation that an entire police service is racist, however, are false, inflammatory and counterproductive to meaningful debate.
This type of irresponsible rhetoric simply undermines the good community relations our members have worked to establish and thus harms all Torontonians.
Canadian society exhibits and promotes anti-black racism. Our police and all other institutions keep producing outcomes that disproportionately hurt and disadvantage black people. This is what systemic racism means. If police say “we are not racist,” but they keep inflicting excessive damage to black people, their claims of intolerance to racism are meaningless.
During the G20 protests in 2010, Toronto police officers who themselves might never assault or arbitrarily arrest peaceful civilians watched as many of their colleagues did so. These bystander officers were partially responsible for the beatings and arrests because they saw abuse and remained silent. So it is with racism in policing. We don’t have to label all cops as racists to see that, as an institution, they justify systemic racism instead of looking in the mirror.