The OHRC’s “From Impact To Action” Report

Ontario’s Human Rights Commission puts out new report on systemic imbalances in policing.

On December 14th, 2023, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released their final report on its inquiry into anti-Black racism by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) titled, “From Impact to Action”.  The report included over 100 recommendations for actions that could be taken by the TPS to improve culturally-sensitive interactions for Black communities’ members when they interact with the police service.  The report examined stop and searches, arrests, charges and artificial intelligence issues, and gaps in use of force and accountability and monitoring mechanisms.  There was also significant consultation with Black communities, community agencies, and, of course, police.

The report starts out by highlighting the impacts of discriminatory policing are exponential in their effects, with the following sequence: racial profiling leads to a police stop, the police stop leads to a record, and the record affects an employment opportunity.  That sequence compounds over and over again, until the person has become someone who is “known to police”, with the impacts being explained as lives turned upside-down, families broken, and communities ravaged.

The first two chapters of the report highlight how the TPS and the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) have continued to deny that there is racial profiling and racial discrimination in policing issue and that it is the result of a “few bad apples”, and that the collection of race-based data measuring disparities are absent.  They also refer to another report, “A Collective Impact”, and highlight Special Investigations Unit (SIU) Director Reports that raise concerns about officer misconduct such as illegal stops, detentions at the beginning of civilian encounters, inappropriate or unjustified searches, meritless charges, and lack of police cooperation during SIU investigations.

The third chapter features Dr.  Scot Wortley, a professor at Toronto University’s school of criminology, and whose expertise lays in policing, criminal justice, prisons, and punishment, as well as the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and colonialism.  Dr.  Wortley’s breadth of experience and knowledge is why the OHRC retained him to analyze the data on police interactions with the public.  There is also mention of two prior reports, A Collective Impact and A Disparate Impact, which found that Black people were significantly overrepresented in all areas of policing interactions with the public, including but not limited to arbitrary street checks and stops, arrests and charges, and use of force.

Where things get interesting is in the ninth chapter of the report, focusing on data collection and the important role it plays in effective accountability.  An emphasis is placed on collecting data on the basis of race and other factors, with the results from that data being made transparent and available to the public.  There is also reference to external studies that explore police body cameras from the perspective of a police officer who might be trained to narrate events while they are being recorded, which may present a skewed version of events, and an example of that might be yelling at a suspect to “stop resisting” even if the suspect was never resisting.

Another point of emphasis included looking at the absence of TPS Disciplinary Tribunal hearings where the SIU identified problematic behavior and how it was part of a larger problem.  Perhaps the most shocking statistic throughout the report is how only one percent of complaints made to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) about TPS officers between 2014 and 2019 led to disciplinary hearings.  Additionally, it was noted that, of the complaints investigate by the OIPRD and TPS, they appeared to be resolved informally and remained confidential.  There is also reference to the OHRC’s Framework for change to address systemic racism in policing: The Police Services Act, about how confidentiality provisions prevent the public from knowing when and whether an officer was subject to some form of discipline from engaging in racial profiling, racial discrimination, or other police misconduct.  As it stands, only decisions from police service disciplinary tribunals are not confidential.

On the topic of transparency, the OHRC cites the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) input for this inquiry by stating, “Public trust in policing requires a strong commitment to transparency through … the proactive disclosure of de-identified information and other information capable of informing the public about critical police decisions, activities, and practices, including in relation to the effectiveness of oversight and disciplinary systems.  Therefore, the IPC would welcome recommendations, including any necessary legislative amendments, to increase proactive disclosure of statistical, anonymized, or de-identified data, as long as it does not involve personal information.  Public reporting of this nature would support the public’s ability to hold police agencies to account by helping the public better understand how policing is being conducted and the extent to which reform efforts are progressing.” The explanation behind why transparency matters is that it demonstrates that police services are serious about investigating and punishing misconduct of their officers.  The IPC was also on record stating that the lack of transparency in policing was not limited to the Toronto Police Service and that there needed to be a province-wide approach to transparency in policing.  Also referenced is the OHRC’s, Framework for change to address systemic racism in policing,  demonstrating the need for the Toronto Police Services Board to urge the provincial government to amend the Police Services Act and Community Safety and Policing Act to include a requirement for greater transparency in the police discipline.

In the end, From Impact to Action makes the finding that Black people are subjected to systemic racial discrimination, racial profiling, and anti-Black racism by both the TPS and TPSB based on evidence gathered throughout the inquiry.  The report’s position can be best described as challenging longstanding practices within policing, and suggestions are made regarding gaps in policies and procedures.  Because of the analysis of ways that rogue police officers could abuse policing powers and suggesting that some data can be destroyed by police, it was worth connecting with the OHRC’s Commissioners to discuss the significance of not being able to challenge police reports, especially given the case that was made regarding the impact of certain policing actions on Black Canadians.

The OHRC was reluctant to respond.

Something that seems to have been overlooked by the OHRC was the weaponization of policing powers as they relate to filing police reports and how there are no systems in place for individuals to challenge frivolous reports that are filed.  While the filing of frivolous police reports does not fall exclusively into the lap of Anti-Black policing actions that officers can take, it fits in with what groups mentioned about narrative-controlling powers. Policing powers have historically been weaponized against Indigenous and racialized communities because of how vulnerable these groups are.  Many members from within these communities, who may get victimized by some police officers often tend to lack the knowledge, skills, or abilities to navigate the oversight structures around the institution of policing.  This all but guarantees that their complaints will end up getting screened out by bodies like the OIPRD.  The inability to navigate the structures around policing is likely why only one percent of complaints submitted to the OIPRD lead to disciplinary hearings.

Although the report mentions that police disciplinary matters are required to be confidential except for a few situations this seems to be the opposite of how disciplinary matters related to Ottawa’s municipal police service were handled. Prior to 2019 almost all disciplinary actions taken within the Ottawa Police Services were shared with the public, so the featured explanation within the report seems to interpret confidentiality laws in a rather weird way. However, I wanted to focus on frivolous reports and their narrative controlling powers, and how there was no process in place to challenge frivolous police reports.

There were three things I was hoping to inquire about: “Considering how the filing of general occurrence reports by police officers can occur without notice to the individual that is subject to the police report, which also has long-term profiling implications, and how there are no methods to challenge police reports, did this concern come up during the consultation process?”, “If not, are any of the Commissioners aware of any work done in the fields of criminology, public policy, or human rights that has explored the systemic imbalances that arise from frivolous reports and the inability to formally challenge them?”, and “Have the Commissioners been involved in or are aware of any studies that have assessed the equitability of the policing model by looking into the hesitancy of law makers to enact zero-tolerance policy change in the Police Services Act for certain behaviors for individuals entrusted with policing powers?” However, the OHRC declined to respond or comment on the questions.

Frivolous Police Reports.

Believe it or not, I, too, have had policing powers weaponized against me, twice, in 2023. Such claims related to the weaponization of policing powers often get attributed exclusively to Indigenous and racialized groups, but this is wrong.  There may be those who might think that no police officer in Canada would ever misappropriate the institutional policing powers entrusted upon them and weaponize them, but the grey areas within policing allow them to do so with no repercussions.

The first frivolous report was filed shortly after the Ontario Civilian Policing Commission had concluded their investigation about a complaint I submitted about organized crime, and the second frivolous report was filed around the time I was interviewing for a civilian position within the RCMP. The two consecutive police reports filed against me by Ottawa Police Services officers, which were completely void of the actual occurrence of events, stemmed from an administrative ask regarding questions for the purpose of a magazine series. That request was made with our community police officer who attended our community association meetings, where I happened to be a board member.

Whether the person making a claim that they have had frivolous police reports filed against them is another person or myself, people who hear others make such claims may wonder, “Why would any police officer file a frivolous police report against a person if they did nothing wrong? Why would they do that two consecutive times? If they did, then why not challenge the authenticity of the frivolous police reports if it can be proven that they did? Well, I did attempt to challenge the reports, documenting all my interactions, and having the necessary audio recordings, even scheduling a time to speak with the office of our representative to the provincial parliament.

What I would end up discovering, and help other important stakeholders to realize, was that there was no system in place to challenge the content within a police report that a person might allege is frivolous—not with the municipal police service, nor with oversight agencies. For that reason, not exploring the narrative controlling powers of police reports and the inability to dispute allegations of frivolous police reports, and the content of such reports, should be viewed as a missed opportunity for the OHRC to account for the dynamic nature of the issue.