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Ottawa police reveal 10-year report on traffic stop race data, suggesting continued racial bias

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The outcome of traffic stops in the city of Ottawa in the last 10 years show Black and Middle Eastern drivers were more likely to be pulled over, but also more likely to be released without charges, suggesting a possible pattern of racial bias, according to the results of a major report on Ottawa police traffic stops.

The Ottawa Police Service released its 10-year Traffic Stop Race Data Collection report on Tuesday, revealing demographic data on racial inequities and bias during traffic stops.

Researchers with expertise in social research from a public policy and human rights perspective were engaged to build a report on the findings, known as the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project (TSRDCP). The data is pulled from a total of 284,721 traffic stops in the city of Ottawa between 2013 and 2023 and said to be the "largest race-based data collection" project in Canadian policing.

The TSRDCP project focused on five data fields collected by officers for each traffic stop, including the perceived race, sex and age of the driver, as well as the reason for and the outcome of the stop.

The report finds a disproportionate number of Black and Middle Eastern drivers were stopped by police based on their share of the population, compared to White drivers.

While the data shows there were moderate decreases for Black and Middle Eastern drivers between 2013 and 2018, that positive trend did not continue between 2018 and 2023.

In 2023, drivers perceived to be Black were 2.6 times more likely to be stopped based on their share of the population, compared to 2.3 times more in 2016. Black drivers made up about 18 per cent of the total number of stops last year, despite Black residents only making up 7 per cent of the city's population.

Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 2.9 times more based on their share of the population in 2023, compared to 3.3 times more in 2016, though that disproportionality has been steadily increasing since 2018. Middle Eastern residents make up about 7 per cent of Ottawa's population.

While Black drivers experienced a significant decline in traffic stops over 10 years, traffic stops in the city overall also decreased significantly.

Researchers found a "surprising" trend when analyzing the outcomes of traffic stops. The report divides the data based on if the drivers were charged, handed a warning or let go without consequence.

"The overall surprising and consistent pattern in the TSRDCP data over the 10-year period from 2013-2023 is that drivers perceived to be White are the most likely to be charged, and drivers perceived to be Black are the least likely to be charged," the report found.

Researchers found the most "plausible" explanation for this trend is that drivers perceived to be Black or Middle Eastern are more likely to be stopped for reasons of suspicious activity or criminal offences which may reflect racial biases.

"Drivers perceived to be White appear not to be stopped because of potential racial bias, and so when they are stopped, they are more likely to be charged," the report found.

Researchers noted another explanation is the data shows evidence that Black and Middle Eastern drivers are treated fairly during traffic stops.

"Since individual officers have considerable discretion when choosing between charging and warning a driver during a traffic stop, officers might be said to treat drivers perceived to be White more harshly," the report said.

The researchers point out their research is a correlational study on the relationship between race, sex, age, and traffic stops in Ottawa, and is not meant to directly address the root cause of the racial inequities.

The "Reasons for Stop" data shows that over 96 per cent of traffic stops are for provincial offences, with a very small number of traffic stop being for criminal offences and suspicious activity.

The data finds that when an OPS officer stops a driver for criminal offences, it is much more likely the driver is perceived to be Black or Middle Eastern than White.

The force points out that officers usually cannot see the driver's race before the decision to conduct a traffic stop, due to factors that include the time of day, weather, tinted windows and distance.

"This ten-year report contains disappointing and difficult findings," The Ottawa Police Service says in its response to the report.

"As policing professionals, it is critical that we acknowledge the lived experiences of the communities we serve. We must continue developing partnerships for collective action so that we can confront bias and discrimination when we see it in our institutions, workplaces, and within ourselves."

The Ottawa Police Service says it will be launching an 18-month task force and action plan to address the continued disproportionalities. The task force will be reviewing the deployment, policy, procedures and training of officers who conduct traffic stops.

The force will also be introducing a new "geospatial mapping tool" that will include additional data fields to allow for greater analysis of the data at the neighbourhood level.

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