OHRC statement on government’s expansion of police powers during COVID stay-at-home order
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is concerned that the most recent expansion of police discretionary power to enforce the latest stay-at-home order will likely result in a disproportionate impact on members of marginalized and vulnerable communities.
The powers granted initially by regulation announced on April 16, 2021, permitted police to conduct random stops and were swiftly and publicly denounced by many police services across Ontario. Powers under the current regulation, announced on April 17, continue to grant police officers and other “provincial offences officers” broad, vague, and highly discretionary authority to stop and question members of the public. Such discretionary powers are very problematic because they create confusion about the rights and obligations of people interacting with the police.
As stated in our Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement, broad police discretion is fertile ground for racial profiling. We know that the findings in the OHRC’s A Disparate Impact report reveal that Black people in Toronto are grossly over-represented in discretionary, lower-level charges and are more likely than White people to face low-quality charges with a low probability of conviction. We also know that people from Indigenous and racialized communities are also particularly vulnerable to over-policing.
From the early days of the first provincial shutdown, the OHRC has consistently called on the government of Ontario to take a human rights-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes setting strict limits on measures that infringe rights, protecting vulnerable and marginalized communities, and collecting and publicly reporting on race-based data.
Given the serious concerns about this sharp increase in discretionary police powers, it is critical that there is also robust transparency and accountability. The government and police services must take responsibility to ensure:
- The collection, analysis and public reporting of race-based data across the full spectrum of policing activities, including for stops and requests for information under the stay-at-home order
- The implementation of transparent and effective accountability processes to identify, monitor and address racial profiling.
The OHRC once again calls on the Ontario government to take a human rights-centered approach in its COVID-19 response, especially given the clear evidence of the potential for disproportionate harms to members of marginalized and vulnerable communities.