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Fewer street checks in Halifax but black people still more likely to be stopped

Halifax Regional Police are performing fewer street checks but new numbers released by the force show that visible minorities, especially black people, are still more likely to be stopped by an officer.

The data shows street checks dropped by 28 per cent between 2017 and 2018, part of a continuous decline since 2012.

Despite that decrease, a CBC News analysis of the data found black people were four times more likely to be street checked than white people in 2017 and 2018. 

People identified by police as Arab or West Asian were nearly three times more likely to be street checked.

The figures “are alarming in the sense that they’re very high,” said Michael Kempa, chair of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

“It’s not a morally good thing. But they’re consistent with the numbers right across the country.”

halifax street checks

In Halifax, police checks can take one of two forms: a face-to-face interaction between police and an individual or group, or observations made at a distance. The figures released by police don’t differentiate between the two. 

Checks are recorded with details such as age, gender, location, reason and ethnicity.

CBC’s analysis was based on 4,579 people who were street checked a single time by police between Jan. 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2018. 

Kempa said similar studies from other Canadian cities have shown visible minorities are street checked at three to four times the rate of whites. ​

“Looking at [CBC’s] statistical analysis, you made conservative assumptions in your data,” he said. “So if anything, you’re underestimating slightly.”

‘Still the target’

Ashley Taylor, who’s black and works as a support worker for African-Nova Scotian high school students, said street checks make him feel like “an enemy.”

He said he believes he draws police attention attention because he’s black, wears his hair in dreadlocks and drives a Mercedes Coupe. His job as a social worker often takes him to higher-crime areas of the city.

ashley taylor

Ashley Taylor is an African-Nova Scotian student support worker in Dartmouth. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

CBC News interviewed Taylor in January 2017 when a different CBC analysis showed black people were 3.2 times more likely to be street checked than whites between 2005 and 2016.

At that time, Taylor said he was being street checked approximately three times a year. Since then, Taylor said he’s been street checked maybe once.

“The frequency [of street checks] might have changed, but the stats are still the same,” he said. “I guess we’re still the target.” 

halifax street checks

Following CBC’s street check coverage in 2017, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission hired criminologist Scot Wortley from the University of Toronto to study how street checks impact visible minority populations in Halifax. 

His study is scheduled for release on March 27. 

The Halifax Regional Police said it would not grant any interviews before the report’s release.

“Out of respect for Dr. Wortley’s process, we are not commenting on issues related to street checks,” said spokesperson Const. John MacLeod. 

Fear of complaints

Kempa attributes the overall decline in street checks to a number of factors.

“Street checks … have really leapt into the public consciousness. People have become sensitized to it and aware that there’s something not quite right going on there. They’re more adamant about pushing their rights with police officers,” he said. 

michael kempa

Michael Kempa is the chair of criminology at the University of Ottawa. (CBC)

Individual officers may be less likely to stop and question citizens because they’re worried about complaints being filed against them, said Kempa.

“They’re tending to pull back a little bit in engaging the public at all, most especially with a formal street check.”

Taylor’s experiences with street checks have left him hyper-vigilant when he’s behind the wheel. He said he switched from driving a white car to a black one to “blend in and stay under the radar.”

If he notices a police car around, Taylor assumes he’s being followed. 

“Is that me thinking, that I guess, I’m losing my mind?” he said.

“It’s not. It’s just something that, you know, your sixth sense takes over, and those are the things that you feel while you’re driving … It just feels like it’s very tough sometimes to be who you just want to be.”

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