Ontario’s police watchdog has launched an investigation into the DNA sampling practices of the Ontario Provincial Police after a complaint alleging racial profiling in the case of “dozens” of migrant workers subject to testing because their skin colour matched the suspect’s description.
The review by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director will look at any and all complaints received, evidence in the case, police practices and relevant law to come up with recommendations for the force.
“Allegations that dozens of migrant workers who were asked to submit to DNA tests for a criminal investigation did not match the description of the suspect except for their dark skin colour raises the spectre of racial profiling and Charter rights issues,” said Gerry McNeilly, independent police review director, in a statement released Monday.
The review is systemic in nature, but connected to a case from the Tillsonburg area where as many as 100 migrant farm workers were asked to submit DNA samples in connection with a police search for the suspect in a violent sexual assault.
The group Justicia for Migrant Workers estimates 100 men gave DNA samples, 44 of whom they were able to identify. According to the complaint filed by the group, a woman in Bayham, Ont. told the OPP that she was sexually assaulted by a person on Oct. 19, 2013. The woman described the suspect as a muscular black male, between five-foot-ten and six feet tall, with no facial hair and in his mid-to-late 20s.
Justicia found that farm workers of all ages, weights and heights were asked by officers from the OPP Elgin County detachment to submit DNA samples, with the only common factor being their dark skin colour.
The OPP announced in December that the force arrested 35-year-old Henry Cooper, a migrant worker from Trinidad and Tobago. He was charged with sexual assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and uttering death threats. In a news conference announcing the arrest, the OPP said DNA evidence was key.
Cooper was not among those identified by Justicia as having submitted samples, outreach worker Chris Ramsaroop told the Star in 2013. It is not known if the accused voluntarily provided a DNA sample to police.
“I am undertaking a systemic review that will not only investigate the immediate issues raised, but also dig deeper to explore underlying causes and broader practices to determine whether systemic failings have occurred,” said McNeilly in the release.
OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis responded to the complaint after it was filed, saying, “As an organization, we do not permit our employees to engage in racial profiling.”