Chief’s apology too little, too late for Wallen

By Tamsin McMahon
Local News - Saturday, May 28, 2005 @ 07:00

For three years, Mark Wallen has been saying what Kingston Police Chief Bill Closs recently garnered national headlines for acknowledging: racial profiling exists.

As a black teen, Wallen had guns pulled on him twice by police officers when he was between the ages of 16 and 19, but was never charged with any crime.

Both times, he complained that he’d been racially profiled. The complaints were dismissed, both by Kingston Police and by independent police investigators.

On Thursday, Kingston Police released a first-in-Canada study that examined the race of everyone questioned by officers.

The report found compelling evidence that blacks – especially young black men between the ages of 15 and 24 – were more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts.

Yesterday, Wallen, now 21, said he felt no vindication after Closs apologized to members of the black community for any unfair treatment.

“It’s really kind of too late for me. I’ve already gone through my stuff and when I said something, nobody really believed me,” he said. “Now that the truth is out, I don’t know.”

Wallen said he was unhappy that while Closs acknowledged the existence of systemic racism within the police force, he didn’t blame any of his officers for the problem.

“It doesn’t make me happy the chief said his officers can still stand tall and whatever and that’s not cool,” he said.

“Everybody should be held accountable for their actions.”

He also worried that the police study wouldn’t go a long way to changing officers’ perceptions about racial profiling.

“They still don’t understand even though the results say that what I’ve been saying for the past three years is all true and I wasn’t making it up,” he said.

“They’ll find some way to defend it or something,” Wallen said.

Wallen was publicly reviled after he came forward with his allegations of biased treatment at the hands of police.

He took his complaint all the way to a hearing at the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services, which dismissed his case earlier this year.

The experience took an emotional toll both on him and his family, he said.

“This is something I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, the scrutiny I was under, the hate I got from a whole bunch of people, that’s something that can’t be described.”

Wallen’s mother, Donna Wallen, said she feels relieved for her son’s sake after hearing the study results.

But even she was surprised at how high the numbers were: The study found that four out of every 10 young black men in the city had been stopped by police during the one-year study, compared to one out of every 10 of their white counterparts.

“The whole thing brought back a lot of sadness and angst for me,” Donna Wallen said. “I find no joy in knowing I was right.”

She applauded Closs for accepting that biased policing exists, but said his apology to the black community came “2½ years too late.”

Now, she said, she wants to know what police are going to do to address the problem of racial profiling, which she said will need long-term solutions.

While the study found that police paid particular attention to young black men, youth in general were targeted more than any other age group.

About 35 per cent of the police contacts recorded during the project were with youth aged 15 to 24.

The most recent information from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics shows that youth between the ages of 12 and 17 account for just 15 per cent of the people charged with a crime in Kingston.

In an interview Thursday, Closs said he’d been concerned that police were targeting young people until he spoke with a senior officer from another police force, who told him focussing on kids is a good thing.

“He said they have so little experience because they’re 18 or 19, they don’t know how to drive properly, they don’t necessarily know how to behave on the streets. So we, through policing, have to train them how to behave so they don’t kill themselves in car accidents or whatever.”

At just 14, Jahbari Blackstock, who is black, said he’s been stopped by police about 10 times in the last year, which he considered “not that much.”

Each time, police took down his name, and each time, he said, he wasn’t committing a crime and has no criminal record.

The Queen Elizabeth Collegiate and Vocational School student said he was usually stopped walking to and from basketball practice.

“Most of the time I’d be coming home from basketball and they would just pull me over and say ‘What are you doing?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m just playing ball,” he said.”

He said he was questioned last week by an undercover police officer as he walked past a house where police were conducting an apparent drug bust.

Blackstock was wearing a shirt with the words “G-Unit,” named for a popular hip-hop trio. He said the officer quizzed him about his clothing.

“He was like, ‘Are you the G-Unit?’ and I was like, ‘No.’ He was just being stupid.”

He said it doesn’t bother him that he’s been stopped so often by police when he hasn’t been committing a crime. But he has less respect for officers because of it.

“If I had done something and they stopped me, then I’d probably be nervous,” he said. “But I know I don’t do anything, so I just answer their stupid questions and laugh at the stupid things they say.”

Lisa Hunter, 17, thinks youth are targeted by police because of their clothing.

“I think they stop you if they think you’re into stuff and if you look suspicious,” she said. “They stop you for what you wear. Say a guy’s wearing a hoodie and baggie jeans; either they think he’s smoking pot or he has dope on him.”

Hunter, also a QECVI student, said she and some friends were questioned by police on Princess Street after coming home for the buskers festival last summer.

“I think they just thought we were drinking,” she said.

While the teens said they don’t think it’s fair that young people are stopped so often by police, they felt the officers’ intentions were good.

“I think they try to talk to us about not [committing crime],” Hunter said.

That’s a positive thing, but it can still leave teens demoralized, said Hunter’s sister, Lyndsay, 16.

“When they pull you over, they make you feel like you’re doing something wrong,” she said.

The teens saved their harshest criticism for themselves. They all said they believed that young people commit more crime, mainly because of peer pressure.

Young people tend to be caught more often than adults because they make more mistakes and aren’t as sophisticated as more seasoned criminals, said Daren Dougall, executive director of the Youth Diversion Program in Kingston.

But in the 20 years he’s been working with youth, Dougall, said he hasn’t heard of a young person who felt targeted because of his or her age or race.

“Most kids are grateful for the approach the police took,” he said.

Police involvement has a huge impact on youth, he said, from being arrested, to getting to know officers who visit local schools.

“The earlier you’re caught, the earlier you’re deterred. If everybody got caught the first time, probably 90 per cent of people wouldn’t break the law a second time,” he said.

“But arbitrarily stopping them just because they’re kids, I don’t think anybody supports that.”