Toronto police, city bylaw, not collecting data on race when enforcing COVID rules

Over the last seven weeks, in Canada’s most populous city, police officers have issued 132 tickets and 12 summons for contravention of the measures put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Another 1,009 “cautions” were delivered by Toronto police from April 10 to May 31. Bylaw officers, simultaneously, have had the power to crack down on physical distancing. But neither the force nor the city department that oversees its bylaw officers can say whether their enforcement has affected any one racial group more than another — because while the city collects information on gender when issuing tickets, neither bylaw nor the city’s police are collecting data about race.

It’s just one example of a gap in official data collection that advocates say could paint a more fulsome picture of disparities that exist in Canada — and allow for future policies to be based in hard evidence.

READ MORE: Experts say Ottawa can do more to tackle racism. But will federal parties care?

“It would be a welcome intervention,” Anthony Morgan, manager of the city’s anti-Black racism unit, said of race-based enforcement data in a telephone interview on Monday afternoon. “Whether or not you believe in racism as a factor in all this, by collecting the data you will have more evidence — to support your position, or to change your mind.”

“This is a huge gap, and a hugely problematic gap,” Sheila Block, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in a separate call. The increased surveillance required during a pandemic brought along with it a risk of magnifying systemic issues, Block continued — noting that such issues could span across the economy, health and social systems, along with law enforcement activity.

In the U.S., questions were raised about race and policing in the weeks before ongoing unrest took hold — sparked by the death of George Floyd, over which former police officer Derek Chauvin now stands charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

As reported by the New York Times in early May, a district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, NY, had released details on 40 arrests that had taken place for distancing violations between March 17 and May 4. Of those arrested, 35 were Black, four were Hispanic and one was white.

Meanwhile, in Toronto — where the police have, in the last decade, faced heat over data showing a disproportionate number of Black individuals and other visible minorities stopped for “street checks” — police force spokesperson Meaghan Gray told iPolitics that the first phase of their strategy for collecting race-based data does not include any enforcement of COVID distancing measures. Race-based data is only collected, for now, for use-of-force incidents and strip searches.

And Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards department — which oversees its bylaw officers — told iPolitics that the only information they collect when ticketing people is about gender and home addresses.

Questions about race and law enforcement have grown louder over the last week in Toronto, after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet — who fell from a Toronto high-rise balcony while police were on-scene, CBC reported. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is now investigating.

Activists and protesters angry over allegations of police involvement in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from the 24th-floor balcony of a High Park apartment building on Wednesday, hold a protest and march to Toronto police headquarters on May 30, 2020. Steve Russell/Toronto Star

At the provincial level, concern about the how increased enforcement of public behaviour could affect visible minorities was raised by the NDP in early April — with opposition leader Andrea Horwath calling on the Ford government to outline protections against abuses of power, as an emergency order made it required for those being charged with contravening public health measures to identify themselves to police officers, First Nations constables, special constables and bylaw officers. 

READ MORE: Ford Government fails to host mandatory anti-racism conference

In a letter to provincial Solicitor General Sylvia Jones dated April 2, NDP anti-racism critic and Black caucus chair Laura Mae Lindo urged the government to track race-based information on all law enforcement interactions under the emergency order. Specifically, Lindo asked that enforcement officers be directed to ask individuals who were being stopped a question about their self-identification for data purposes.

Jones’ office did not respond to a request for comment from iPolitics by the time of publication. Lindo, in a phone call on Monday, said she would additionally be interested in seeing race-based data about the individuals on the front lines of the coronavirus response in Ontario.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, in a Monday morning press conference, noted that any potentially discriminatory enforcement practices ran the risk of eroding trust between the public and police — and called for more statistics in Canada. “We need to make sure we have the data, that there is race-based data that allows us to make the evidence-based decision-making to remedy these injustices,” he said.

An anti-racism strategy at the national level, which spans from 2019 to 2022, pledges $6.2 million to increase disaggregated data and evidence about racism and discrimination in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quizzed on Monday over whether his government would mandate the collection of race-based COVID data specifically, to which he replied that they were working with the provinces “to try and get better granularity” — whether about age data, gender data or otherwise.

“To use a very clear example on the closing in on 100,000 cases of COVID we’ve had in this country to date, we don’t even have age data for a large portion of that,” Trudeau said — later adding that “racialized communities are living this (pandemic) very differently than others.”

READ MORE: Canada lacks data needed to make future decisions about relaxing COVID-19 measures: experts

Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, added in remarks on Monday that the federal health agency was working with Statistics Canada, along with the provinces, territories and organizations like the Canadian Institute for Health Information, on efforts to collect information on the race and ethnicity of coronavirus patients.

Back in Ontario, the health ministry says it approved public health units collecting voluntary race-based data from COVID patients — and that it’s considering making both income level and race reportable across all units. But that would require regulatory changes, the ministry said.

Toronto Public Health is already collecting race-based data, according to health board chair Joe Cressy — who noted to iPolitics on Monday morning that city council, last week, had endorsed a call to the province to collect and share disaggregated race-based data more widely.

“The old adage of ‘what gets measured gets done’ is especially relevant right now,” he said. The city has released data on infections by area of the city, which allows for an examination that considers census data for each location; it’s now collecting race-based data individually. 

“From a public transparency and accountability position — obviously upholding confidentiality — we always need to collect disaggregated data,” Cressy said. “Unless you collect it, you’re not able to understand the disproportionate impact on different populations.” Both he and Morgan said they’d raised the idea of bylaw officers collecting race-based data with the licensing and standards department — and that, to their understanding, the question was being considered internally.

“It’s not a question of whether it’s important,” Morgan claimed, in the call on Monday afternoon. “It is a question of will.”

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