Collecting Race-Based Data: Appeasement Versus Reform

Commentary, Government, Anil Anand

Earlier this year, after years of resisting the recording of race-based statistics by police, there has been a sudden change of heart.1 Now, advocates and those seeking police reform want race-based data collected by police.  

In Ontario, the authorities hope that by collecting officers’ perceptions of suspects it can expose any racial biases or stereotyping within police services. The new mandate has officers record and report the race of suspects they arrest, with use of force, based on seven categories – Black, East/Southeast Asian, Indigenous, Latino, Middle Eastern, South Asian and White.

While the intention is to identify racial bias, one has to question the effectiveness of this approach.  

First, the mandate by focusing solely on instances of use of force leaves out the bulk of policing where systemic concerns are more likely to be impacted by bias. Without mitigating the seriousness of the use of force, especially in cases where it is motivated by racial bias, an accused may be subjected to a far more serious and damaging encounter with police during what is overly polite, routine, and justifiable enforcement of any of several thousand Criminal Code, or Provincial Offences charges — charges that may result in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of a person without there ever being any suspicion that the entire process had been motivated by a racial bias.  

If the intent is to determine the presence of racial bias, then looking for instances of the use of force will be so limited to be almost meaningless in achieving the intended outcome of eliminating bias.  

Police officers, especially under the present regime of professional and public oversight by way of the use of cell phones by citizens, body-worn cameras, in-car cameras, and surveillance cameras, recognize that their actions may potentially be recorded by someone, somewhere; and while not completely unlikely that officers will still engage in misconduct as evidenced by the cases south of the border, it is likely only to capture the carelessly or foolishly deserving. 

And to that point, is this added record to supplement the body-worn camera, the in-car camera, the record of arrest, synopsis of incident, the show cause, use of force form, injury report, the requisite parading of the prisoner before the Officer-in-Charge on camera upon arrival at the police station, and depending on the incident a half dozen other forms?

Second, what this mandate once again ignores are the underlying causes of the encounter in the first place. We already know that there are more encounters with members of certain marginal communities. This is a fact born out by several substantive and objective systemic outcomes. There is ample data from the decades of carding by police services across Canada that provides a powerful snapshot into the contact and enforcement patterns of police in large and small cities across Canada.

There is also ample data from the corrections system of the rates of incarceration of different segments of society. Do we really need any more analysis given the substantive numbers of incarcerated in our correctional system? 

It doesn’t take a genius to examine the proportions of Indigenous peoples or peoples of colour in our prisons or to take a drive through marginalized neighbourhoods and evidence the make up of communities relegated to marginalization, or observe the dropout rates of marginalized children from our schools. The examination of use of force by ‘race’, or even the counting of arrests and charges by colour is not about to change police culture or the systemic barriers in the criminal justice system.  

We have observed for decades a disproportionate arrest of certain segments of society by police, and their advancement through the criminal justice system, including by prosecutors, judges, and parole boards, all of whom did not mitigate the charges, prosecution, or incarceration of those people.  

Let’s think about that for a moment. Either everyone, thousands of police officers, prosecutors, judges, and parole officers have all been corrupt and complicit in the persecution of those accused — or the entire checks and balances intended to be part of an adversarial system, the independence of police, prosecutions, corrections, and politics provided enough evidence, justifiable, and authorized to convict those people. The system is not perfect by any means, but is it reasonable to assume that those thousands of arrests have all been fabricated and trumped up?  

It is reasonable to allege that many of those charges could have been dismissed, diverted, or simply ignored with judicious discretion.  

It is also reasonable to presume that if some of those accused had been given a break, matters would have been better for everyone involved; but a denial of the fact that crimes were committed is unrealistic and ignores the much larger and more important issue of the underlying drivers that brought the offenders before the criminal justice system in the first place. 

It is reasonable to assume that alternatives to sentencing, diversion courts, circle conferencing, or the application of Gladue were not applied as frequently as they could and should have; but once again, it does not take away from the fact that multiple levels of the criminal justice system upheld the charges.

Third, the mandate requires that police officers themselves identify their perception of the race of the person with whom they have had the encounter involving the use of force. The potential unintended consequence of this policy is that officers who perceive a potentially confrontational encounter may choose instead to avoid the encounter, abdicating their responsibility, or on the other extreme in instances where they encounter confrontation reverse engineer the evidence and charges in order to formulate the legal justification for the use of force.

This new classification is not going to change anything, nor tell us anything new that we don’t already know. The emphasis should be on responding to the underlying causes that contribute to crime and disorder, and to substantive and meaningful reform.  

Fourth, the classification is itself flawed and potentially offensive. Why classify some individuals by their culture (Latino), others by their places of origin (Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and South Asian) and only Blacks and Whites by their colour.  If it’s all right to group people by colour, then stick with colour. But to group two bookends as either Black and White and everyone else in the middle as Indigenous, Latino, Middle Eastern, South Asian is problematic.

There is expediency to the classification that is ill-thought-out and has potentially unintended consequences. Although the classification is intended to capture an officers’ perception of the person with whom they are reporting the encounter, it is not the end purpose of the data. Once that data is collected it will be available for analysis, it will be public, and it will like all data to be open for subjective interpretation. People live in the real world, with real racism, with violence, neglect, and isolation resulting from the intolerance and bigotry of the ignorant. Associating people with places also attaches the labels of geo-political, and sectarian conflicts, of religious and cultural conflict and of the unwelcome regional attributions that may prevail from time to time. To pretend that these attributions don’t happen is dismissive of the entire anti-racism movement across the world. It is symptomatic of how readily, even unintentionally we impose systemic classifications without being aware of their implications.

Lastly, yes, this policy is only about the use of force, nonetheless it is an official classification; it is a reflection of how we perceive and treat our citizens. If governments or their institutions can classify citizens using such categorizations it legitimizes its use generally.

The classification is counter to our principle of multiculturalism, the notion of a mosaic or cultural tapestry. The classification, for the sake of expediency, erases entire cultural identities replacing them with arbitrarily general labels, minimizing their richness and distinctness. It is an exchange of the notion of a mosaic for a melting pot.

Implying that everyone from several different countries, each with very distinct cultures, religious practices, and social values is the same is offensive and wrong. The generalized labelling may be expedient for the system but not without concern.

It may seem that this is a splitting of hairs, but it is a matter of identity, of a sense of belonging, of inclusion or exclusion for those who are subject to this classification; and it is valid. It is about the cultural values of a public service under scrutiny for bias and systemic racism. It is about examining any and every element that potentially contributes to the presence, perpetuation, or implies bias.  

It’s time to move beyond tokenism and pacification, cease more studies, and consultations, and get down to making real changes.


Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.



1.      OIPRD Begins to Collect Race-Based Data under the Anti-Racism Act, 2017. Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD),   Accessed: July 10, 2020.