TORONTO – Ontario plans to implement new rules on the controversial practice of police carding early in the new year, but its proposed crackdown has been roundly condemned by community activists, civil libertarians and police as other provinces keep a close eye on developments.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association calls carding a national problem, and recently criticized the police chief in Regina, a city with a relatively large indigenous population, for his insistence that there’s a need for street checks.
Police in other provinces, including Alberta, say they’re aware of Ontario’s efforts to curb carding, and routinely talk with other forces about how they handle such issues.
Last fall, Ontario Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi promised to end carding, prompting cheers from groups that complain street checks by police unfairly target young black, brown and indigenous men and women.
But those same groups, including the African Canadian Legal Clinic, the Campaign to Stop Police Carding and the Criminology Department at Ryerson University, all say they’re disappointed because the draft regulation on street checks doesn’t match Naqvi’s pledge.
“There is not a single community group or affiliation that supports this regulation, because this regulation falls far short of the minister’s rhetoric,” said Howard Morton of the Law Union of Ontario.
The regulation says street checks should only happen as police investigate a specific crime, and officers must tell people up front that they do not have to answer any questions and can walk away without identifying themselves.
That’s a big concern for front-line officers dealing with “real world” situations such as keeping an eye on a man who is watching children outside a school, said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“Officers would walk up and say ‘We have a suspicion that you may be involved in pedophilia, but before you answer anything, you don’t have to talk to us, you don’t have to give us your name, and you can walk away,”‘ said McCormack.
“Do you think that guy’s going to stand around and say ‘I’d better give them my name?”‘
Information gathered during street checks has “huge value” for investigations, McCormack added, but officers will stop doing them if there’s no clear directions. The draft regulation is “cumbersome” and will be difficult to turn into a clear policy, he said.
“We’re trying to figure a way through this that is respectful, lawful and unbiased, not random or arbitrary,” said McCormack. “But I think that what we’ll find is that, across the province, officers will not be doing this. Period.”
What police see as a flaw in the regulation, community groups see as a gap – one that will still allow officers to make what they consider arbitrary stops of innocent people.
“The scope of this proposed regulation is very limited and there are any number of police-community interactions that are not covered,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the CCLA. “In the case of a specific criminal investigation, police are not governed by this regulation, and accountability measures do not apply.”
The Ontario Human Rights Commission said young black, brown and indigenous men are the most likely to “feel the damage of carding,” and complained the draft regulation doesn’t go far enough to prevent racial profiling.
“The Human Rights Code prevents police from casting their investigative net widely on racialized individuals when dealing with a vague description involving race,” said chief commissioner Renu Mandhane.
“The draft regulation does not prohibit this, which means every black man in a hoodie can be unfairly questioned during a crime committed somewhere else in their neighbourhood.”
Knia Singh of the Osgoode Society against Institutional Injustices said he had been carded 11 times by police, and believes the draft regulation would have allowed all but one of those police stops, each of which was entered into their records.
“It is important that the gains we’ve made to this point are not thrown away by an insufficient regulation with a limited scope and numerous exemptions,” said Singh. “If we cannot distinguish between a criminal investigation that is legitimate and a stop of innocent people, then we have a serious problem.”
Toronto police have stopped carding until the new regulation is sorted out, but city councillor Michael Thompson said there have been “documented incidents of racial profiling and police brutality” since then.
“Carding has been suspended and yet every day we see more proof that police are stopping people for no reason, asking for their identification, and in the worst cases beating and arresting those people and charging them with crimes,” said Thompson.
Naqvi has promised to ban random and arbitrary police stops on March 1. After that, Ontario police can only stop people if they have valid policing concerns, and the minister says the regulation governing police interactions with the public will be in force by June 1.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that, such as developing training modules and getting officers trained, so that work is starting,” said Naqvi.