Jennifer Quinn, Michelle Shephard Toronto Star
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on Oct. 22, 2002:
When officers discuss the subculture of Toronto’s police force, they do so reluctantly and without being quoted by name.
And they say that hesitation itself is the product of a blue-uniformed culture that tells its members: Don’t make waves. Don’t become ostracized in a job where your life depends on trust and backup.
David Auston Mercury has no such restrictions. He left the force a decade ago to become a lawyer and can critique his former profession from a distance.
As one of the few black constables in his police division, he remembers letting racist comments hang unchallenged in the police guardroom. There was the time a partner had referred to young black men on Yonge St. as “chimps.”
And Mercury, while off-duty, had frequently endured being stopped by police for no apparent reason other than the colour of his skin.
One traumatic incident he’ll never forget began when he sped down a deserted North York street on his way to a police building with evidence. Mercury was working as an undercover drug squad officer and had just wrapped up a successful drug bust.
He was seen by officers in an idling cruiser parked in a nearby gas station, and he just knew he was going to be stopped for speeding. With that in mind, Mercury parked his unmarked car at the side of the road before the sirens wailed.
He knew the procedure. The cruiser would stop behind him, headlights illuminating the driver, and the two officers would approach on either side.
But, this time, the cruiser came roaring up beside him and a .38-calibre revolver was aimed at his head.
“I don’t normally swear, but some expletives definitely came out of my mouth, “ Mercury says. “Thank God I was a cop and didn’t panic and duck because they likely would have assumed I was going for a weapon and started firing.”
When the uniformed officer finally lowered his gun, Mercury was given a police cliche instead of an apology. “We just want to get home safely, “ they told him.
“You can’t convince me that they pull over all speeders at gunpoint. They saw a black man in a car going fast and they panicked.”
Mercury complained to then-police chief Bill McCormack, but it went no further.
Policing is a challenging, dangerous and highly scrutinized profession, says Mercury. His own actions were investigated while on the force when a complaint was filed against him. The incident involved his work as an undercover drug squad officer in 1987 when he shot and injured an interior designer, thinking the man was trying to run him over as he reversed his car in an alleyway.
A board of inquiry was ordered in 1992, as Mercury was completing law school, but the matter never went to the board because he had already left policing to begin articling.
Mercury, now a lawyer, insists he has no axe to grind with the Toronto police force and respects the difficulty of a police officer’s work. There has been some improvement in the years since he left the force, he says, but unspoken rules still allow racial profiling to be used on the streets.
Mercury doesn’t blame individual officers. He blames the system, the police subculture that fosters a brotherhood even at the expense of individual rights.
Those who have studied this phenomenon agree.
“The vast majority of police officers are not racist. They’re simply taught to use their intuition and experience … so it’s only natural that they’re going to target those that they perceive to be the usual offenders, “ says Osgoode law professor David Tanovich.
And the “usual offenders, “ say black community leaders and those who study policing, are often black people.
Civil libertarians and lawyers have for years backed the black community’s fight to end what they say is systemic racism on the Toronto force, especially when it comes to the conduct of police during traffic stops.
There has been anecdotal evidence but no hard statistics to back these claims.
Six years worth of Toronto police traffic offence data, obtained and analyzed by The Star, seems to indicate that racial profiling does exist.
The data show a disproportionate number of blacks were ticketed for offences that would usually come to light only after a traffic stop was made – a pattern consistent with racial profiling.
The Star also found that blacks arrested for simple drug possession, a minor offence that usually results in a ticket to appear in court, were taken to the station for booking more often than whites and held overnight for bail hearings twice as often.
“About every six months, like clockwork, I get pulled over just for being a black man driving, “ says one Toronto officer, who requested anonymity.
“I always play it straight and give my driver’s licence and registration and make the officers tell me exactly why I was pulled over. I won’t show them my badge until the end, “ he says.
Lawyer and former police board chairperson Susan Eng says that until a “critical mass” of black officers is hired, attitudes will not change.
“There’s a basic human instinct that says the ‘other’ is a threat. When we talk about the cops, or anybody else like that, we’re not suggesting they’re doing it out of malice. They are no more evil, no more malicious and no less human, “ Eng says.
“When you have a critical mass of black officers they’ll say, ‘You know what, you’re not going to talk to all blacks like that any more. I’m not going to let you, ‘“ says Eng. “You need that in their ear. When the situation occurs, it’s not good enough for us to blather away in the media or politicians blathering away, it has to happen on the ground.”
The force does provide race relations training. The department has tried to boost minority hiring but will not release the number of visible minority officers currently on the force.
Last year, 51 of the 332 recruits, or 15 per cent of the total new hirings, represented visible minorities in one of the world’s most multicultural cities. This year, only 11 per cent of the class are visible minorities. The force could not tell The Star how many of those recruits are black.
Although employment equity and race relations policies are essential, they alone will not change the omnipresent police subculture, says British professor Simon Holdaway, who spent two years in the mid-1990s studying race relations on the Toronto force.
In a 1998 report, called “The Fish Rots from The Head: Race Relations Within The Metropolitan Toronto Police, “ Holdaway notes there is a wide range of diverse views among visible minority officers concerning equity in employment law.
“They were all in favour of some legal measure to ensure that members of minority, ethnic and other groups have equal opportunity to apply for and be recruited, “ he wrote.
However, “visible minority officers felt they were perceived by their police peers, and more widely within Ontarian society, to be the subject of special, preferential treatment.”
The black officers felt they had to work twice as hard to justify their employment.
Holdaway also found that race policies not clearly supported by management fell into a paperwork abyss.
As one officer explained: “The error that I think the force made was focusing the policy towards the rank-and-file officers. I really think that race relations policy should be geared to top management. As such, those policies would be articulated by management and it percolates down through the system.”