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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

It's long past time we retired Badge 666

The Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project is not the last word but the first step.

Steve Collins says it's time to retire badge 666.

Metro file

Steve Collins says it's time to retire badge 666.

Suspicious activities are a pastime of mine, like exploring areas of the city I'm not specifically permitted in.

Last Sunday, after a sunny stroll west across the Adawe Crossing bridge into Strathcona Park, I wondered how much of the trip to Cummings Bridge on Montreal Road I could make along the narrow west shoreline of the Rideau River.

The early part of the trip brought me behind the metal barriers and security cameras of the Russian embassy.  Circumnavigating the imposing Cold War relic, however, was easy compared to the coming gauntlet of seawalls, thick foliage and fences protecting the riverside condo and apartment buildings from my trespasses.

Eventually left with no way forward along the river, I had to fumble back up to the street, wearing a grass stain and a few burrs for my troubles.

At the back of my mind the whole time was how I'd explain this little lark if someone saw a grown man making his way through backyards and bushes and called the cops. But a quick glance up the page at my photo shows one thing I probably didn't have to worry about: would the colour of my face potentially render my activities more suspicious to police?

Last week, the police board considered the results of the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project, which found that Middle Eastern and black drivers are 3.3 and 2.3 times more likely, respectively, to be pulled over by Ottawa police. They are also disproportionately likely to be stopped for “suspicious activity,” as opposed to a specific offence, and sent on their way with no further action, raising questions about the validity of the stop.

The study's authors were careful not to make any claims that their data necessarily document racial profiling by police, but we could certainly call it suspicious activity.

This two-year project, it must always be remembered, did not start as a proactive attempt by the Ottawa police to examine and correct possible biases, but as the settlement of a human-rights complaint. In 2005, police pulled Chad Aiken over in his mother's car, and, he alleged, harassed and assaulted him.

“I believe that the only reason I was stopped was because I was racially profiled,” he complained to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “I was an 18-year-old African-Canadian male, driving a Mercedes Benz, with four other racialized youth as passengers”.

Aiken’s girlfriend used her phone to record him demanding one officer’s badge number.

“666 is my badge number,” came the reply.

It was not the finest moment in the sometimes touchy relationship between our police force (composed of about 10 per cent racial minorities, according to a 2012 workplace census) and the citizens they work for (about 20 percent racial minorites, says StatsCan).

More recent injuries to this relationship include the death in police custody, still under investigation, of Somali immigrant Abdirahim Adbdi, and ill-advised social media comments by an officer concerning the suspicious death of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

Encouragingly, this study is not the last word but the first. Police and researchers will hold a public panel discussion on its findings November 24. It's long past time we retired Badge 666.

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