Researching police misconduct: Ricochet teams up with Tracking (In)justice

Joint research project will seek to expand database to include serious injury at the hands of police officers, and track consequences for the officers involved
Photo: Police in Montreal. Via Depositphotos
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In 2021 Ricochet won a Michener fellowship to study police misconduct in Canada, a research project supported by the Inspirit Foundation. Today, we are happy to announce our ongoing partnership with the Tracking (In)justice project to jointly pursue the next phase of this critical research — expanding the database of incidents leading to death to also include incidents leading to serious injury as well as, when available, the consequences for the officers involved.

Last year, Tracking (In)justice, composed of academic researchers at Carleton University, Queens University and the University of Toronto, supported by several non-governmental organizations and funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, created a publicly-accessible database of police-involved deaths in Canada which is available online.

Rather than duplicate that comprehensive work, we’ve been collaborating since earlier this year to expand our understanding of policing in Canada.

The urgency of the moment

Police-involved deaths in Canada are increasing at a staggering rate, going up over 72 per cent in the six years between 2016 and 2022.

According to the available data, since 2000, Tracking (In)justice have identified 732 police-involved deaths where force was used. 2022 was the deadliest year yet in terms of police-involved deaths, with 69 people dying in interactions with police where force was used. There were 57 such deaths in 2021, and 52 in 2020. The highest number in a single year prior to that was 40 in 2016.

Now we’re working on compiling comparable data for incidents that lead to serious injury, and the consequences for the officers involved.

Data on policing in Canada hard to come by

Many Canadians might be surprised to find that our access to data on policing, and its consequences, lags far behind what is available to researchers in the United States. While most existing data on police interactions in the United States is available to the public, policing in Canada is more like a black box.

One academic we’re consulting with on this project told us that he was forced to study police misconduct in the United States, despite being a Canadian and being employed by a Canadian university, because the data he was working with simply wasn’t available in Canada.

Tracking (In)justice have identified 732 police-involved deaths where force was used. 2022 was the deadliest year yet in terms of police-involved deaths, with 69 people dying in interactions with police where force was used.

In recent years we have seen the establishment of independent oversight bodies to investigate the most serious allegations of police misconduct (like the SIU in Ontario, BEI in Quebec, etc.). While the jury is still out on how effective these bodies are at securing justice for victims of police misconduct (The SIU, for example, charges officers in fewer than 4 per cent of the cases they investigate, they have improved transparency around the most serious types of offences — those leading to serious injury and death.

But when it comes to assault, harassment, sexual offences and racial profiling the data that exists often relies on victims to self-report, in many cases twice — first to the police, then to an oversight or ethics body — and engage with a process that is known to clear police officers of wrongdoing in the overwhelming majority of cases. And even when there is investigation of incidents that lead to serious injury and death, convictions are extremely rare. 30 per cent of charged cases are withdrawn. When there is a trial, 30 per cent of those cases result in acquittal. And in the rare instance when there is a conviction, the punishment is often conditional discharge – a form of probation where the person can avoid a criminal record by meeting certain conditions.

More transparency needed

We expect to report on our findings by the end of 2023.

But, unless there are legislative changes to force Canadian police forces to be more transparent, that’s where this research will end. Self-reported data, generated by a system that incentivizes victims not to report, has serious limitations. As a result, we can’t produce data with the same level of confidence for instances of police misconduct that do not lead to the hospitalization of the victim.

Racial profiling and sexual harassment by police officers are two examples of offences that have been at the centre of public attention in recent years. But compiling reliable data on the frequency of these types of incidents that can be compared across jurisdictions remains prohibitively difficult. This is especially important to highlight since we know from research that a negligible number of officers accused of sexual misconduct are convicted. One study puts the conviction rate at 1.59 percent between 2005 and 2020.

In 2021 Ricochet won a Michener fellowship to study police misconduct in Canada, a research project supported by the Inspirit Foundation. Today, we are happy to announce our ongoing partnership with the Tracking (In)justice project to jointly pursue the next phase of this critical research.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that the police should collect more information on the people they interact with. But rather that the data they already collect and shield from public disclosure should be made accessible.

Later this year, we expect to publish a comprehensive snapshot of how often police officers seriously injure civilians, broken down by city and province, and how often those officers face charges and conviction for their actions.

Expanding this research to cover serious injuries as well as deaths is critical to helping all stakeholders better understand the scope of the problem. As is providing comprehensive data on the frequency with which officers face consequences.

But comprehensive data on assaults, harassment and racial profiling that can be easily compared across jurisdictions will have to wait until policy-makers see fit to compel police forces across Canada to be more transparent in releasing their records.

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