The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Scot Wortley

Julian Tanner

Scot Wortley is at the Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto. Julian Tanner is in the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto. The article from which this summary is taken was published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 45 (3): 367-389.

For decades African Canadians have complained that they are frequently stopped, questioned and searched by the police for “DWBB”, “Driving While Being Black Violations”.1 Similar complaints have been made by aboriginals in the prairie provinces and South Asians in British Columbia. Canadian law enforcement officials have rejected such claims. This controversy reached a boiling point in October 2002 when the Toronto Star published a series of articles on the issue of race and crime. In addition to reviewing previous research, the Star provided its own analysis of police arrest data. The Star analysis reveals that black people in Toronto are highly over-represented in certain offence categories “including drug possession and ‘out-of sight’ traffic violations” such as driving without a licence or driving without insurance. The Star maintains that this pattern of over-representation is consistent with the idea that the Toronto police engage in racial profiling. Its analysis also suggests that blacks are treated more harshly after arrest than their white counterparts. In particular, white offenders are more likely to be released at the scene, while black offenders are more likely to be detained, taken to the station for processing and held in custody for a bail hearing2 .

The Toronto Police vehemently denied all allegations of racial bias in the Star series. The Chief of Police for Toronto declared, “We do not do racial profiling...There is no racism”.3 Likewise, the President of the Police Association stated that, “No racial profiling has ever been conducted by the Toronto Police Service”.4 These sentiments were echoed by several local politicians. For example, the Mayor of Toronto said, “I don’t believe that the Toronto police engage in racial profiling in any way, shape or form. Quite the opposite, they’re very sensitive to our different communities”.5 Unfortunately, the police have yet to produce concrete data that can lend support to their “no racism” argument. Does racial profiling exist in Toronto? It is the purpose of this paper to briefly discuss the results of two recent Toronto surveys that directly address the racial profiling debate.

Racial Profiling: A Definition

In the criminological literature, racial profiling is said to exist when the members of certain racial or ethnic groups become subject to greater levels of criminal justice surveillance than others. Racial profiling, therefore, is typically defined as a racial disparity in police stop and search practices, in Customs searches at airports and border-crossings, in police patrols in minority neighbourhoods and in undercover activities or sting operations which target particular ethnic groups. It is associated with racial bias in police investigation rather than in arrest decisions or police treatment after arrest. This is not to say that arrest statistics such as those analysed by the Star do not reflect profiling. The over-representation of blacks in Toronto arrest statistics could mean that blacks are indeed subject to greater police surveillance; but, it could also mean that blacks are more involved in criminal activities. Thus, the racial profiling hypothesis must be tested by examining information on police surveillance activities.

Previous Research

Police data from both England6 and the United States7 suggest that black people come under greater criminal justice surveillance and are more likely to be stopped, questioned and searched by the police than people from other racial backgrounds. In England, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act police record the racial background of all people who are subjected to police stops and searches. Statistics from 1997-1998 show that black people in the United Kingdom were stopped and searched at a rate of 142 per 1,000, compared to 45 per 1,000 for Asians and 19 per 1,000 for whites. Overall, the English data suggest that blacks are approximately eight times more likely to stopped and searched by the police than whites.8

Unlike England and the United States, the police in Canada are not required to record the race of the people they stop or search, so official police statistics cannot be used to investigate the presence or absence of racial profiling in this country. However, a number of field studies have uncovered evidence that racial profiling may exist. For example, Carl James9 conducted intensive interviews with over fifty black youth from southern Ontario. Many of these youths reported that being stopped by the police was a common occurrence for them. Robynne Neugebauer’s10 interviews with 63 black and white teenagers from Toronto produced very similar results. Although the author finds that teenagers from all racial backgrounds often complain about being hassled by the police, both white and black youth agree that black males are much more likely to be stopped, questioned and searched by the police than youths from other racial backgrounds. Although these ethnographic studies provide great detail about police encounters and document the “lived experiences” of black youth, they are based on rather small, non-random samples. They thus risk being dismissed as “anecdotal” and not truly representative of police behaviour. However, similar evidence of racial profiling has been found in two recent surveys of Toronto residents.

Survey One

In 1995, the Institute for Social Research at York University conducted a survey of over 1,200 Toronto adults aged 18 years or older who identified themselves as either black, Chinese or white. Over 400 respondents were randomly selected from each racial group. The survey found that black people, particularly black males, were much more likely to report involuntary police contact than either whites or Asians. For example, 44 per cent of the black males in the sample reported that they had been stopped and questioned by the police at least once in the past two years. Thirty per cent of black males reported that they had been stopped on two or more occasions. By contrast, only 12 per cent of white males and seven per cent of Asian males reported multiple police stops.11

Multivariate statistical analyses reveal that these racial differences in police contact cannot be explained by differences in social class, education or other demographic variables. In fact, two factors that seem to protect white males from police contact -- age and social class -- do not protect blacks. Whites with high incomes and education, for example, are much less likely to be stopped by the police than whites who score low on social class measures. By contrast, blacks with high incomes and education are actually more likely to be stopped than lower class blacks. In fact, black professionals often attribute the attention they receive from the police to their relative affluence. One black survey respondent stated: “If you are black and you drive something good, the police will pull you over and ask about drugs”. One weakness with this study, however, is that it does not control for other relevant factors, including criminal behaviour, that may determine who the police stop and search. This issue, however, was addressed by the second survey described below.

Survey Two

The Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey was completed in 2000. Interviews were conducted with a random sample of approximately 3,400 high school students.12 The results of this study also suggest that black people are much more likely than people from other racial backgrounds to be subjected to random street interrogations. For example, over 50 per cent of the black students report that they have been stopped by the police on two or more occasions in the past two years, compared to only 23 per cent of whites, 11 per cent of Asians and eight per cent of South Asians. Similarly, over 40 per cent of black students claim that they have been physically searched by the police in the past two years, compared to only 17 per cent of their white and 11 per cent of their Asian counterparts. However, the data also reveal that students who engage in various forms of crime and deviance are much more likely to receive police attention than students who do not break the law. For example, 81 per cent of the drug dealers in this sample (defined as those who sold drugs on ten or more occasions in the past year) report that they have been searched by the police, compared to only 16 per cent of those students who did not sell drugs. This finding is completely consistent with the police argument that they focus exclusively on suspicious or criminal activity when deciding to make a stop, not the racial characteristics of citizens.

The data further reveal that those students who have access to automobiles and spend most of their leisure time in public spaces such as malls, public parks, or nightclubs, are much more likely to be stopped by the police than students who spend most of their time in private spaces or in the company of their parents. This leads to the million dollar question: do black students receive more police attention because they are more involved in crime and more likely to be involved in leisure activities which take place in public spaces?

While our data reveal that white students have much higher rates of both alcohol consumption and illicit drug use, black students do report higher rates of both minor property crime, drug trafficking and violence. Black students are also more likely to report that they are the member of a youth gang. In addition, both black and white students report higher rates of participation in public leisure activities than students from all other racial backgrounds. These characteristics, however, do not come close to explaining why black youth are much more vulnerable to police contact. In fact, after statistically controlling for criminal activity, drug use, gang membership, car use and leisure activities, the relationship between race and police stops actually gets stronger.

Further analysis suggests why this is the case. Racial differences in police stop and search practices are actually greatest among students with low levels of criminal behaviour. For example, 34 per cent of the black students who have not engaged in any type of criminal activity still report that they have been stopped by the police on two or more occasions in the past two years, compared to only four per cent of white students in the same behavioural category. Similarly, 23 per cent of black students with no deviant behaviour report that they have been searched by the police, compared to only five per cent of whites who report no deviance13 . Thus, while the first survey, discussed above, reveals that age and social class do not protect blacks from police stops and searches, this study suggests that good behaviour also does not shelter blacks from unwanted police attention.


These findings have two major implications. Firstly, because the black community is subject to much greater police surveillance, they are also much more likely to be caught when they break the law than white people who engage in the same forms of criminal activity. For example, 65 per cent of the black drug dealers in the above high school study report that they have been arrested at some time in their life, compared to only 35 per cent of the white drug dealers.

The implication can best be understood by imagining 10,000 people living in a high density community in downtown Toronto. Imagine further that half of the residents of this community are black and the other half are white. Let us also assume that an equal number of the black and white residents (250 from each group) sell illicit drugs on a regular basis. If, owing to racial profiling, black residents are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, black drug dealers in this neighbourhood will be more likely to be detected and subsequently arrested than white offenders. For example, if 50 per cent of the black residents are randomly searched, compared to only 10 per cent of the white residents, this searching practice should yield 125 black arrests and only 25 white arrests. Moreover, the race-crime statistics (125 black arrests compared to only 25 white arrests) produced by such biased search practices would probably be used to justify the use of racial profiling. In other words, finding more black than white offenders would tend to reinforce police beliefs that their profiling strategy was correct. Racial profiling, therefore, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This example helps illustrate how arrest statistics may have more to do with law enforcement surveillance practices than actual racial differences in criminal behaviour. In sum, racial profiling may help explain the over-representation of minorities in arrest statistics.

The research discussed also suggests, however, that the police almost never arrest citizens who are not involved in some form of criminal activity. This may lead to the conclusion that racial profiling is harmless: if you don’t break the law, you will not be arrested. However, the second major consequence of racial profiling is that it serves to further alienate black people from mainstream Canadian society and reinforces perceptions of discrimination and racial injustice. Indeed, our research strongly suggests that black people who are frequently stopped and questioned by the police perceive much higher levels of discrimination in the Canadian criminal justice system than blacks who have not been stopped. It is of interest that being stopped by the police does not appear to increase perceptions of injustice for whites or Asians14 . Being stopped and searched by the police, therefore, seems to be experienced by black people as evidence that race still matters in Canadian society. That no matter how well you behave, how hard you try, being black means that you will always be considered one of the “usual suspects”.


Clearly, the issue of racial profiling requires further research in this country. To date, with the notable exception of the Kingston, Ontario Police Service, Canadian law enforcement agencies have not collected data on this phenomenon. There is a fear that official stop and search data will be misunderstood by the public, used to unfairly label individual officers as racist, increase law suits against police services and ultimately result in de-policing (i.e., officers will refuse to respond to situations which involve minority citizens). It should be noted that, in general, these problems have not emerged in England and the United States where this type of data has been collected for years. Canadian police managers need to recognize that there may be major advantages to collecting stop and search data. First of all, it could be an effective means of monitoring police behaviour and might very well reduce the number of unjustified, racial profiling incidents. Secondly, a transparent effort to monitor and eliminate racial profiling, in our opinion, would ultimately improve the relationship the police have with various racial minority communities. By contrast, a refusal to acknowledge and deal with the issue may only intensify tensions and ensure that the issue of racial discrimination continues to haunt law enforcement agencies for decades to come.


1. Cecil Foster, A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, Toronto: 1996, Harper-Collins.

2. Jim Rankin, Jennifer Quinn, Michelle Shephard, Scott Simmie and John Duncanson. 2002. "Singled Out: An Investigation into Race and Crime", Toronto Star, October 19, 2002, A1; Jim Rankin, Jennifer Quinn, Michelle Shephard, Scott Simmie and John Duncanson, "Police Target Black Drivers", Toronto Star, October 20, 2002, A1.

3. Toronto Star, "There is No Racism. We Do Not Do Racial Profiling", Toronto Star, October 19, 2002, A14.

4. Catherine Porter, "Police Union Blasts Star", Toronto Star, October 22, 2002, A6.

5. Toronto Star, "Analysis Raises Board Hackles", Toronto Star, October 20, 2002, A9.

6. Ben Bowling and Coretta Phillips, Racism, Crime and Justice, London, England: 2002, Pearson Education Ltd.

7. Robin Shepard Engel, Jennifer M. Calnon, and Thomas J. Bernard, "Theory and Racial Profiling: Shortcomings and Future Directions in Research", Justice Quarterly, 2002, 19(2): 249-273.

8. Bowling and Phillips, 2002.

9. Carl James, "Up to No Good: Blacks on the Streets and Encountering Police", in Victor Satzewich (ed.), Racism and Social Inequality in Canada: Concepts, Controversies and Strategies of Resistance, Toronto: 1998, Thompson, 157-176.

10. Robynne Neugebauer, "Kids, Cops, and Colour: The Social Organization of Police-Minority Youth Relations", in Robynne Neugebauer (ed.), Criminal Injustice: Racism in the Criminal Justice System, Toronto: 2000, Canadian Scholars Press.

11. Commission on Systemic Racism, Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, Toronto: 1995, Queen's Printer for Ontario.

12. Julian Tanner and Scot Wortley, The Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey: Overview Report, Toronto: 2002, University of Toronto, Centre of Criminology.

13. Scot Wortley and Julian Tanner, "Data, Denials and Confusion: The Racial Profiling Debate in Toronto", Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2003, 45 (3): 367-389; Scot Wortley and Julian Tanner, "The Good, the Bad and the Profiled: Race, Deviant Activity and Police Stop and Search Practices", paper submitted to the American Journal of Sociology, 2004. Paper originally presented at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law Conference on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, November 28, 2002, Toronto.

14. Ibid and Scot Wortley, John Hagan and Ross Macmillan, "Just Des(s)erts: The Racial Polarization of Perceptions of Injustice", Law and Society Review, 1997, 31: 637-676.