With evidence of systemic anti-black racism in Canadian policing, it may be necessary to shift the burden onto police officers to rebut the presumption that they are racial profiling.
On May 4, Ottawa police announced that they have agreed to collect race-based data. This, they revealed, has been agreed to as part of a settlement of a human-rights complaint that was initiated after a seemingly textbook case of racial profiling.
The complaint came from a then-18-year-old black youth, Chad Aiken, who was stopped by police while driving his mom’s Mercedes. Aiken alleged that he was stopped because he is black, and also claimed that the police assaulted him after he asked for their badge numbers. While few other details have been made public, what seems to have been central to vindicating Aiken’s claims is an audio recording that his fast-thinking girlfriend captured of the incident.
Without getting into whether it is a positive or negative thing that Ottawa police have agreed to collect these race-based statistics, what is problematic about this case – and the public’s reaction to it – is that it serves to encourage continual acceptance of the idea that the word of a black man against a police officer is effectively worthless in its own right.
Are all Canadians genuinely equal before the law? Within our public consciousness, it seems that whereas the average Canadian who is intercepted by a police officer enjoys the privilege of being assumed credible and honest until proven otherwise, blacks in these circumstances are presumed to be inherently non-credible until they prove the opposite.
Worse still, within the Canadian public psyche, blacks are not permitted to prove their credibility or honesty through their own words, conduct, or character (heavens no!), but must rely on a recording device or brave witness – the value of whose testimony diminishes in proportion with the amount of melanin in their skin.
This presumption of black dishonesty might be understandable if it weren’t the case that there is a corpus of data consistently revealing that there are disproportionately higher levels of police bias and misconduct being exercised against black people (especially young black men) throughout North America and much of the western world.
This program of state-sponsored and often-deliberate anti-black police harassment is no doubt linked in meaningful ways to the fact that since 2000, the number of blacks in federal prisons has spiked by 52 per cent. By 2010-2011, the proportion of blacks in federal prisons had risen to 9.12 per cent, despite the fact that blacks only represent about 2.5 per cent of Canada’s general population.
Unfortunately, some police officers also seem less inhibited to exercise police brutality or fatal force against black Canadians. Just think of some of the latest cases: Stacy Bonds, Junior Alexander Manon, Michael Eligon, and Eric Osawe. (In the latter case, an officer has now been charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting Osawe.)
As if all of the above is not enough, The Toronto Star recently conducted a nationwide investigation that ultimately led to a startling finding: Since 2005, there have been more than 100 cases across Canada involving more than 120 officers who were reprimanded by judges for “outright lying, misleading or fabricating evidence.” Since The Star released its report, Ontario’s chief prosecutor has promised to investigate the matter of police officers who are found to have lied in court.
With this kind of evidence revealing the systemic practice of anti-black racism in Canadian policing, in addition to some officers’ apparent willingness to lie in court, might it not be foolish for us to leave the police to resolve these issue themselves? In order to bolster our credibility as a free and democratic society, it seems we need a national discussion on whether the law should shift the burden onto officers (regardless of their race).
If we can reopen tired national debates on when a human life starts, squabble over proper decorum in the House of Commons, and exchange jabs about which federal party was a latent supporter of Hitler, I don’t see why Canadians cannot openly, fairly, and fervently debate the merits of requiring that in each and every case, police be obliged to rebut the presumption that their interception of a black person is based on racial profiling or some other form of anti-black racism.
Introducing a reverse presumption of anti-black racism for Canadian police officers may seem unfair, but it is no less so than presuming that every black person who submits a complaint of police misconduct is a liar, as was the case from the 1600s to the 1860s. If introducing extreme precautionary measures is what is required to counter the systemic racism that still prevails in some aspects of Canadian society, then that is what we must do.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.