Founded in 1983 - United for Diversity and Racial Equality


Montreal, Canada, May 6, 2009 --- Authorities must enact measures to prevent the police from using vague, race-based, suspect descriptions to stop and arrest young Black and other racialized men even when they do not resemble the suspect or when the description is so general that every male of color can be subject to police stops.

This is the main recommendation of a report released by CRARR today to highlight a frequent situation encountered by many innocent young men of color who end up arrested and being roughed up by police officers due to mistaken identity.

Produced with private donations and technical support from the Pro-Bono programs of the faculties of law of McGill, UQAM, and Université de Montréal, the 80-page report, entitled Any Negro Will Do: Race and Suspect Description - the Slippery Slope towards Racial Profiling, provides a detailed review of the practice. It reviews case law in Quebec and other provinces, and submits 11 recommendations for actions to prevent such a practice.

Named after a popular American expression, the practice involves the police broadcast and use of vague suspect descriptions based only on race and gender (usually, “a Black man”) that leads officers to stop, detain, arrest and point guns at individuals whose looks often bear little resemblance to the suspect other than the fact that they share the same race. The problem can be compounded by the fact that many police officers lack training and personal knowledge with racial diversity, which can lead to further complications in identifying race (for instance, mistaking a South Asian for an Arab).

This practice can be a result of individual or institutional conduct based on conscious or hidden bias, ignorance or negligence. Since it involves the description of a specific person, race-based suspect descriptions that contain little information on features other than race and gender, differ from criminal profiling, which involves the elaboration of a profile of a group or type of persons likely to commit a particular crime based on a hosts of factors; and racial profiling, which involves using race as a proxy to subject all persons associated with that race to heightened scrutiny and differential treatments, without any valid motives or any report on a specific suspect.

As a result, race-based suspect descriptions, no matter how vague, tend to be considered as legitimate and necessary to police work, although there have been little public policy debates on the issue.

Further, the courts have generally been upholding the practice and ruling in favour of the police. The report examines specific decisions by the Supreme Court (R. v. Mann,2004), and by other courts or tribunals in Ontario (R. v. Smith, Superior Court, 2004),Quebec (Commissaire à la déontologie policière c. Chan et Pépin, Police EthicsCommittee, 2006) and Alberta (Coward v. Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, Court of Queen's Bench, 2008) that rejected victims' challenges to what is seen as racially biased police conduct and that upheld the constitutionality of the police stops and arrests. To illustrate the problem, CRARR presents the stories of Black men in Montreal who have been the target of this “Any Negro Will Do” practice, including:

  • A 19 year-old McGill Black student who came out of a Wyclef Jean concert at the Metropolis club and was arrested at gunpoint by the police acting on a report of a “Black man wearing red pants and carrying a gun” near the St-Laurent metro station. One officer even asked him if he belonged to a gang;
  • A 21-year-old college student who was stopped at gunpoint by two officers in Laval when he was walking home at night and handcuffed. The police was looking for a “Black man with a backpack” and found that he matched the suspect description;
  • A 28 year-old biracial man who was going from his car on Guy Street, to his workplace downtown, when he was cut off by a police car, arrested at gunpoint and handcuffed by a policewoman who also told him that his name was fake since no Black man could carry a Québécois name.
  • Reviewing Canada's international obligations on preventing racism in policing as well as policy actions in Quebec and Ontario on racial profiling, the report outlines challenges facing authorities and racialized communities with regard to race-based suspect description and calls for measures to protect people of colour from such abusive and dangerous police actions. Some of the report's recommendations to the government, police departments and civil rights watchdog agencies include:

  • Officially recognize that the practice of using vague, race-based suspect descriptions is discrimination as it exposes all members of a racial group to disproportionate scrutiny and harm;
  • Require that police suspect descriptions be more specific in terms of physical description (skin colour, height, weight, age group, etc.) and that they mention time and geographic scope to narrow the search and avoid casting the wide net of discrimination on all members of a racial group in the area;
  • Avoid lengthy legal procedural challenges to claims by victims of the “Any Negro Will Do” practice and settle early, especially in cases of obvious mistaken identity and immediate admission of such an error by the police officers involved;
  • Adopt policies enabling the Quebec human rights commission and the Quebec Police Ethics Commissioner to better handle complaints of the “Any Negro Will Do” practice. Pending such adoption, these agencies should suspend all decisions on these complaints to avoid inadequate investigation and incorrect analyses;
  • Train future and current police officers, judges, and members of administrative tribunals on issues of race, racial profiling and race-based suspect description.