The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) is facing accusations of racial profiling after video surfaced on social media showing a Black man being erroneously pulled over by a cop who falsely claimed his licence plate was expired.
Jean-Claude Fenelon tells Global News he was driving an Enterprise rental car in late July when an officer stopped him on his way to pick up a family member from work.
The incident, caught on camera and posted to YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, shows an unidentified white OPS officer asking for Fenelon’s licence and registration. The officer says he ran the vehicle’s plates and found they were expired.
The video shows the two men have a brief back-and-forth dispute over whether any expired validation tag would be the responsibility of Fenelon or the rental car company before both head around the back of the vehicle.
Upon seeing the registration is indeed still valid, the officer owns up to what he called an “honest mistake.”
Fenelon asks whether he was pulled over because he’s Black, an accusation the officer immediately denies. He later tells Fenelon not to “pull the race card.”
“I just feel what he did was totally wrong,” Fenelon told Global News in an interview Wednesday.
Fenelon said the cop could see who was driving before deciding to pull him over, though the officer denied seeing his face before running the plate.
Fenelon said he believes he was pulled over for no other reason than driving while Black.
“What do you call this? That’s racial profiling,” he said.
The OPS said in a statement to Global News on Wednesday that it has reviewed the footage and is “very aware of the legitimate concerns raised by community members about racial profiling,” but did not admonish the officer’s behaviour.
“There was a respectful officer trying to ensure road safety while explaining his concerns to the driver. There was a respectful driver trying to safely operate his rented vehicle while explaining his actions to the officer. During the interaction, the officer realized he made a mistake – he owned it and fully apologized for it,” the OPS said in its statement.
The police service continued to say it strives to make all interactions with residents “bias-neutral” and has implemented “new policies, training and education for all officers in order to address these issues.”
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly declined to comment on the incident when asked at a media availability with local public health officials on Wednesday afternoon.
Members of Ottawa’s Black community have lambasted the police over the traffic stop and are calling for an external review of the incident.
The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, which shared Fenelon’s video on Twitter, said in a statement to Global News on Wednesday it “strongly condemns the illegal traffic stop of a Black man by a white Ottawa police officer.”
The coalition went on to call for the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to conduct a public interest inquiry into racial discrimination and profiling by the OPS.
The OPS have collected race-based data on traffic stops as part of a human rights complaint settlement dating back to an incident in 2005. It was then that an 18-year-old Black man launched a complaint after he was pulled over by Ottawa police while driving a Mercedes Benz.
In 2016, a York University analysis of OPS traffic stop data found that Black and Middle Eastern drivers were more likely to be stopped by Ottawa police than non-racialized drivers.
“This happens all too often,” Fenelon said Wednesday.
The Ottawa resident told Global News he has often been stopped by police and asked inappropriate questions, such as where he’s from and how many beers he’s had despite driving sober.
He said he has called the OPS to lodge complaints before, but it always ends up being the officer’s word against his — prompting him to now record all of his interactions with police.
“I gotta figure out another solution. So that’s why when I’m driving I always carry my camera,” Fenelon said.
He said he hasn’t heard from the OPS since the incident but would like the force to take responsibility for the altercation and work to eliminate instances of racial profiling instead of “pretending it’s alright.”
Fenelon said he wants his children to know that when they’re pulled over, they have the rights to defend themselves.
“I’ve got kids that are going to grow up in this system and I don’t want them to feel that they don’t have any rights with the police,” he said.
“I just want this to stop happening.”