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Under suspicion: Concerns about racial profiling by police

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I'm frequently followed by police while driving, to the point that I expect it to happen and I am surprised when it doesn't (Black male, age 25-34).

Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates peoples’ rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). People from many different communities experience racial profiling. However, it is often directed at First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Arabs, West Asians and Black people, and is often influenced by the negative stereotypes that people in these communities face.

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) began a year-long consultation to learn more about the nature of racial profiling in Ontario. Our aim was to gather information to help us guide organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling. We connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives. We conducted an online survey, analyzed cases (called applications) at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, and reviewed academic research. We conducted focus groups with Indigenous peoples and received written submissions. Overall, almost 1,650 individuals and organizations told us about their experiences or understanding of racial profiling in Ontario.

Many police officers and organizations in Ontario acknowledge that racial profiling may occur in police interactions with racialized and Indigenous peoples, and several have taken steps to address it. However, not all have come to accept that it is a concern.

We received hundreds of responses about racial profiling in policing. These reports came from all regions of the province. The extensive nature of the experiences and perceptions we heard about is consistent with the notion that racial profiling in policing is a widespread concern across Ontario.

What we heard

We heard reports of Indigenous and racialized people being racially profiled in various interactions with police, including:

  • Being followed or monitored by police
  • Police stops of pedestrians and drivers – people raised particular concerns about street checks or carding and being stopped without an adequate reason
  • Searches, including strip searches
  • Police investigations, such as using DNA sweeps
  • Harsh or unnecessarily heavy-handed treatment, such as being treated in a rude or discriminatory way, excessive or unwarranted charges, or unnecessary calls for officer reinforcement
  • Arrests
  • Excessive use of force or restraint
  • Reprisals (payback).

We heard that some people may be exposed to racial profiling based on their unique intersection of identities. For example, Black male youth may be more likely to be singled out repeatedly by police because of stereotypes about being involved with crime.

Truthfully all my friends have been through the same things I have been through. It has become second nature to be aware of the police... [It’s a] clear violation, but position of power leaves us to just accept this treatment as normal (Black male, age 20-24).

Racial profiling by police can be systemic

When people think of racial profiling by police, they often think about reports of individual incidents carried out by individual officers based on conscious or unconscious bias. However, case law recognizes that racial profiling is a systemic problem in policing. Even individual incidents of racial profiling may have a systemic element. Systemic racial profiling refers to patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of an organization’s or sector’s structure, that create a position of relative disadvantage for racialized and Indigenous peoples. These policies, practices or behaviors may appear neutral, but may result in situations where racialized or Indigenous peoples tend to be singled out for greater scrutiny or negative treatment.

We heard that if police prioritize crimes committed in areas where racialized people tend to live, compared to the same crimes committed in areas where White people tend to live, this may be evidence of systemic bias. We also heard that when police use the approach of stopping people who look “out-of-place,” it may result in more racialized people being stopped in neighbourhoods where mostly White people live.

The police explain it away by talking about how things "don't add up." A black person in a white neighbourhood, someone driving an expensive car in a poor neighbourhood, etc. they are trained to investigate things that seem "out of place." That is literally their job, an expectation laid out to them formally during police college. This is the root of racial profiling… (White female, former police officer, age 35-44).

Impacts of racial profiling by police

Many survey respondents told us that their experience of racial profiling decreased their sense of trust in the police. Fear and feelings of being unsafe were common themes.

I live in fear for my black son, I experience sickening levels of anxiety if I text him or call him and [he] does [not] respond within 30 minutes or so. I feel bad that I have put my black children under surveillance in order to protect them from the system that is supposed to protect them (Black female, age 35-44).

Many parents also talked about the grave and long-term effects on their children of being singled out and treated negatively by police, such as increased criminalization – which means turning youth into criminals by over-policing the activities they engage in.

Racial profiling undermines the relationship between police and racialized and Indigenous individuals, families and communities. Frayed community relationships reduce the likelihood of civilians reporting crime, cooperating with police investigations, or providing evidence in court. This eroded trust undermines
the effectiveness and authority of these institutions.

Concrete action and decisive steps are needed

Preventing and addressing racial profiling is a shared responsibility. Government, policing organizations and other responsible organizations must take concrete action and decisive steps to prevent, identify and respond to racial profiling in policing. Only then can trust begin to be rebuilt between racialized and Indigenous communities and the police services that serve them. And only then can organizations make sure they are meeting their obligations to uphold people’s rights under the Code to be free from racial profiling. 

Ways to address racial profiling in policing

The OHRC has made many recommendations over several years to address racial profiling. Many are in the area of policing. These recommendations are included in our report, Under suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario. These recommendations should be used to identify how racial profiling may be taking place in policing organizations. They also identify specific approaches police should use to prevent and address racial profiling.

Overall, consultation participants voiced their agreement with the following broad strategies to prevent and address racial profiling:

  • Anti-bias training
  • Developing policies, procedures and guidelines
  • Effective accountability monitoring and accountability mechanisms, including:
    • complaint procedures
    • disciplinary measures
    • collecting, analyzing and reporting on data
  • Holistic organizational change strategy
  • Leadership
  • Communication (external and internal)
  • Engagement with affected stakeholders.

Next steps

In our 2017-2022 strategic plan, the OHRC committed to using our enforcement powers under the Code to work towards non-discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, including ending racial profiling in policing. As a next step, the OHRC will develop specific policy guidance to help individuals, community groups, police organizations and other law enforcement bodies understand how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling.

Where appropriate, the OHRC will continue to launch public interest inquiries, intervene in cases and/or launch Commission-initiated applications to the HRTO to actively challenge cases of alleged racial profiling, with a focus on eradicating racial profiling in the criminal justice system.

The OHRC will continue to call for the collection of race-based data and data on other Code grounds to better understand if racial disparities exist in policing.

For more information

To find out more about racial profiling in policing and other sectors, the full Under suspicion report is available online at

To file a human rights claim (called an application), contact the
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at:

Toll Free: 1-866-598-0322
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-607-1240

If you need legal help, contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at:
Toll Free: 1-866-625-5179
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-612-8627

©2017 Queen’s Printer for Ontario