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Edmonton police’s controversial street check practice to undergo third-party review

Click to play video 'Edmonton Police Service’s street checks practice to be independently reviewed' Edmonton Police Service’s street checks practice to be independently reviewed
WATCH ABOVE: A third-party external review is being launched amid concerns over how Edmonton police handle the controversial practice of conducting street checks. The development comes after numbers showed black or indigenous Edmontonians were more likely to be targets of street checks – Jul 12, 2017

A little over two weeks after the Edmonton chapter of Black Lives Matter called for a ban on police street checks in Alberta’s capital, the Edmonton Police Commission announced it had agreed to launch a third-party external review of the controversial practice.

“The purpose of the review is to determine if the current practice is respectful of all the people served by the EPS,” the police commission said in a news release Wednesday.

“The review will also examine prevailing literature and compare practices across Canada and the Commonwealth with respect to regular police contacts with the community.”

The police commission said work on the review was expected to get underway by the end of August and that it hopes to have the review completed by December, although that could be extended.

Late last month, Black Lives Matter revealed its analysis of data obtained from a freedom of information request on Edmonton Police Service (EPS) street checks from 2012 to 2016. Its data showed aboriginal and black Edmontonians are much more likely to be subject to street checks, when police stop citizens not necessarily suspected of a crime to speak to them or collect personal information.

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READ MORE: Aboriginal women, black people much more likely to be ‘carded’ by Edmonton police

Watch below: On June 27, 2017, Fletcher Kent filed this report on black or indigenous Edmontonians being more likely to be stopped in a police street check.

Click to play video 'New numbers prompt call for Edmonton police to abandon street checks' New numbers prompt call for Edmonton police to abandon street checks
New numbers prompt call for Edmonton police to abandon street checks – Jun 27, 2017

“This data clearly shows that street checks are a form of systemic discrimination which unfairly targets ordinary citizens,” Bashir Mohamed of Black Lives Matter Edmonton said on June 27. The organization is calling for carding to be banned and all collected data be destroyed.

Watch below: Global National’s Reid Fiest reports on the calls for the checks to be banned in Alberta

Click to play video 'Alberta activists call for ban on ‘carding’ or police street checks' Alberta activists call for ban on ‘carding’ or police street checks
Alberta activists call for ban on ‘carding’ or police street checks – Jun 27, 2017

“This has been a topic of a tremendous amount of interest in the country. As everyone knows, for a few years now, a lot of work has been done in Ontario,” Cathy Palmer, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission, told reporters Wednesday. “We began to say, in conjunction with the service, that perhaps there’s some additional rigor that could be put into the process by putting in our own due diligence here.

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“We’re in the process of putting together a list of some external consultants and we will also be putting together an advisory committee of community representatives that will oversee the work of the consultant.”

“I fully support the Edmonton Police Commission’s decision for an external review of EPS Street Checks,” Mayor Don Iveson said in a statement Wednesday. “I have spoken with both Cathy Palmer, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission and the chief of police and they have assured me that they take community concerns about street checks very seriously, and further that they will openly address any findings from both this review and that of the province.

“I have high expectations that both reviews will be inclusive and transparent and will give a full and fair airing to both community concerns and policing perspectives. Everyone in our city deserves to feel safe and respected and police need clarity to be able to do their work.”

Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley has said her department has tasked a working group made up of Alberta’s police services and Alberta Justice to “work with all stakeholders with the intent to get sort of an agreement on a policy going forward around these things that would be province-wide.” She said she is hoping community consultation on the issue will begin shortly.

Palmer said she spoke with provincial officials Wednesday morning and assured them the commission’s review would not duplicate the work being done by Alberta Justice.

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Police across the country have come under fire over the street checks practice over the past few years.

READ MORE: Halifax RCMP conduct street checks on black people more than Halifax police

In Ontario, new legislation took effect in January requiring police to tell people being stopped for a street check that they are not required to provide their identification.The legislation’s goal was to end arbitrary stops, especially those based on race.

READ MORE: Ontario asks judge to review rules around ‘carding’ street checks

In an interview with Global News in January, Staff. Sgt Warren Driechel with the EPS Intelligence Branch, said while citizens have the right to say no to a street check, EPS policy is to not inform people of their rights.

“The citizen has a right to leave anytime they want, they don’t have to provide their information, they don’t have to stay and give the information or their identity to the police because they’re not being detained (so) we can’t enforce that,” he said. “Our standpoint on this is that we don’t… It isn’t up to the police to educate the public about their rights all the time but it’s important that our members are aware of those rights so that if challenged or questioned about that, they understand the implications of that.”

Last August, the EPS decided to implement a more formal training regiment on street checks following an internal review of its practice.

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“The commission will review all data gathered since the new street check procedure was implemented in August 2016 to measure accuracy and determine if the current-state data collection is in line with existing policy,” Palmer said.

“Chief Knecht and members of the Edmonton Police Service have taken positive steps toward establishing fairness and accuracy of street checks, but the Commission also recognizes the growth of the issue,” the police commission said Wednesday. “We want to ensure policies and procedures are fair and equitable to all Edmontonians, and we believe this will be accomplished through a comprehensive third party review.”

Working with lawyers and academics, Black Lives Matters’ analysis of police street checks conducted from 2012 to 2016 found that:

  • Aboriginal Edmontonians are four times likely to be street-checked than white people
  • Aboriginal women face the highest rates of carding at 6.5 times the rate that of white women
  • Black people in Edmonton are 3.6 times more likely to be street-checked than white people

Police have defended the practice of street checks and say it is an important tool for proactively fighting crime.

“Within the police service, street checks are important because they give us the ability to determine who’s out in the community, who may be involved in crime or who may be committing crimes or potentially victims of crime,” Driechel said in January.

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READ MORE: Edmonton police continuing controversial street check practice

Watch below: Fletcher Kent filed this report in 2015, when police said they will continue the controversial practice of “street checks” because they said, in Edmonton, it’s not that controversial.

Some people have expressed concerns about the practice of street checks that extend beyond those connected to race or ethnicity.

“They violate citizens’ charter rights because no matter what police have to say about this, they do result in detentions,” criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel told Global News in January.

“They’re not told about their right to counsel, they’re not told about their right to remain silent, they’re not told about their right to just walk away so I think they’re wrong and it’s a fairly significant invasion of civil rights.”

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“We have a number of community members who complain about that all the time, particularly the ones that are living in poverty or on the streets,” Lewis Cardinal, co-chair of the Aboriginal Commission for Human Rights, told Global News in January. “They complain about it and have complained about it a lot. Maybe not so much as going and filing complaints because they’re not going to do that. Because one, they don’t feel that anyone’s going to do anything about it and there’s a fear of retribution from the police service as well.

“Police are doing their job. They’re trying to curb crime but on the way, they’re trampling over other people’s rights. The community members, they don’t know what their rights are, they don’t have any idea of what they can or cannot do so there’s an education component that needs to be worked out.

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director with Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, told Global News in January that she believes while there may be the occasional bad apple who misuses their power when conducting a street check, she suggested she believes most of the time street checks actually provide a net benefit to the community she works with, urban aboriginals.

“I’d like to think that as a service, they’re using the checks for the safety and the protection of the people that they’re serving out in the streets, that’s what I would hope,” she said at the time. “I know lots of officers and when they’re out there checking on folks, that’s what they’re trying to do when they do this exercise.”

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Mohamed, co-chair for the Edmonton chapter of Black Lives Matter’s police file, spoke to Global News about the issue in February, several months before speaking at a news conference about the data his freedom of information request unearthed.

He said he is a black Somali Canadian and recounted being stopped for a street check as a youth.

“I was just walking down the street in my neighbourhood. At that time, I was not really familiar with the policy of street checks so I was walking in my neighbourhood, going to the corner store and this was in high school. An officer stopped us and asked what we were doing. We told him we were going to the corner store. He asked us for our names and he carried on because I guess we weren’t suspicious.

“Back then, I really didn’t see the problem because it was generally a normal thing. Because my neighbourhood is seen as high crime, police are often seen in the area so back then I just thought of it as something annoying. Looking back, I now see the problem but back then I was just a kid trying to go to the corner store.”

In 2016, 22,969 street checks were carried out involving 20,689 people. Police said that was down by 15 percentage points from the previous year, adding they have reviewed their practices and tightened the parameters in which officers are allowed to perform street checks.

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Police said 23 per cent of all street checks happened in the downtown area due to the higher numbers of beat officers there.

“Street checks are really where police are out and creating some kind of engagement with the public, so stopping and talking to someone,” Driechel said in January. “It may be for the purpose of furthering an investigation, obtaining additional information or just essentially seeing who’s out in the public… who, what, where, when, why.”

“We must ensure our police service has the tools to do their job but are respectful of individual rights and freedoms at the same time,” Palmer said Wednesday.

-With files from The Canadian Press, Karen Bartko and Fletcher Kent.