Confidence in the police: variation across groups classified as visible minorities.

AuthorSprott, Jane B.


The importance of public confidence in the police is clear. Confidence in the police is important in and of itself but is also seen as being important in enabling the police to get the cooperation of the public. As recently noted,

The legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public is considered one of the most important goals of policing in democratic countries ... and has been found to be associated with numerous cooperative behaviours such as obeying the law, consenting to police decisions, providing information and collaborating with the police more generally. (Jonathan-Zamir and Weisburd 2013: 4)

There is a growing literature in the United States exploring the levels of confidence that various racial or cultural groups have in the police (see, e.g., Huq, Tyler, and Schulhofer 2011; or Tyler 2003, for a review). Within the Canadian context, research tends to explore differences in views through the lens of visible minorities as a group, compared to non-visible minorities (O'Connor 2008; Cao 2011; Sprott and Doob 2009). For example, an article in this journal (Cao 2011), based on an analysis of the public use dataset of the 18th Statistics Canada General Social Survey on victimization collected in 2004 (Statistics Canada 2005), concludes that "race structures citizen views of the police: visible minority and non-visible minority members [of the public] differ significantly in their opinions about local police" (14).

The question raised by that study derives, in part, from its use of the public use (General Social Survey) dataset. The group described as "visible minorities" includes all of those who identify themselves as such in response to the question "People in Canada come from many racial or cultural groups. You may belong to more than one group on the following list. Are you ..." They are then read a list of 11 groups (starting with white and ending with any other group) (Statistics Canada 2011: 308). From this list, Statistics Canada derives the variable visible minorities. Aboriginal people--because they are not defined, legally, as visible minorities--are left in the awkwardly, but accurately, named category non-visible minorities (people who don't fall into the category of visible minorities).

The problem, of course, is that visible minorities in Canada are not a homogenous group on almost any dimension, including economic well-being (e.g., Hum and Simpson 2000) and incarceration (e.g., Trevethan and Rastin 2004, Public Safety Canada 2012: 50). Clearly, then, criminal justice perceptions are also likely to vary. Within Ontario, there is some indication that blacks, whites, and Chinese hold different perceptions of how the police treat people (Wortley 1996). For example, blacks in Ontario were significantly more likely than whites or Chinese to believe that police treat poor or young people differently from wealthy or older people. Black Ontarians were also significantly more likely than whites or Chinese to perceive discriminatory treatment -believing that police treat both black and Chinese differently from whites (Wortley, 1996). Whether these views hold beyond Ontario or for other racial groups is not clear. However, findings such as these underscore the importance of exploring views across various racial/ cultural groups more carefully. In addition, it is worth noting that even more detailed groupings (e.g., blacks, South Asians, Chinese, Aboriginal) may still combine people who have quite different cultural and social backgrounds. However, for our purposes, the manner in which they are treated by the police may relate more to those larger categories than it does to cultural or social differences. Regardless, as will become clear, inadequate sample size precluded any examination by us of more detailed groups of people.

When exploring views of the police across Canada using the General Social Survey (GSS), there is an additional complexity because the aggregate group visible minorities--and the groups within the category of visible minorities--are not distributed equally across the country. For example, the public use dataset for the 2009 GSS on victimization showed that, using data weighted to reflect the geographic, gender, and age distribution of Canada (and eliminating those who did not answer the racial/cultural group question), 16.2% of those living in large urban centres were described as being from visible minorities, in contrast to only 1.3% of those in rural areas and small towns. Indeed, of the 4,391 actual (unweighted data) respondents from rural areas and small towns, only 46 were visible minorities. (2) Given this distribution, any examination of visible minorities' views using the GSS can really only be meaningfully examined in the data from large urban centres.

Furthermore, visible minorities are not equally distributed across provinces. In the 2009 GSS (unweighted) data, there were only 58 visible minority respondents in the urban areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick combined, (3) and only 52 in Manitoba and 27 in Saskatchewan. This means that 92% of the people from visible minorities in urban areas are located in four provinces. Thus, across Canada, any GSS investigation into views held by visible minorities is largely a reflection of views from those in urban locations in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. These locations are important because there are differences across those provinces in views of the justice system (see, e.g., Sprott, Webster, and Doob 2013). For example (using weighted data), while 36% of the total sample (including those who did not give a response) in Quebec had "a great deal of confidence" in the police, only 23% did in British Columbia.

Initial analyses

Given these jurisdictional differences, if one wants to really understand the views of visible minorities (the composite group or broken...

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