Toronto Police: “To Serve and Suspect”

Amelia Bredo

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, three teenagers, whose names have been withheld for privacy, waited for a friend outside of Parkdale Collegiate Institute, a high school located in an ethnically and economically diverse neighbourhood in Toronto. As one of the few public areas in the neighbourhood, this was an obvious choice for a meeting place. A scattering of benches and the distance from the sidewalk, away from where they would surely be in people’s way, as well as the fact that they didn’t want to pay for the right to sit in a café or restaurant, made this the ideal spot to meet. Moreover, as students of the school where they were waiting, they were comfortable and at ease here. They knew that lingering in other areas of the neighbourhood could look suspicious, and may even be dangerous. It was a shock, then, when two police officers arrived and proceeded to ask them questions. Identification was requested and provided, and then, after collecting information and producing a general feeling of unease, the police were on their way. Over the course of only a few minutes, the way these teens viewed their neighbourhood, their school, and those who are meant to “serve and protect”changed dramatically. They had just become subject to the police practice of “carding”, the lingering effects of which will instill a sense of distrust towards the police that continues into adulthood.

This experience is not unique to the teenagers described above. A Freedom of Information Request made by the Toronto Star in June 2015 indicates that between the years 2009 and 2014, 159,303 people in Peel region were the subjects of “street checks”, a police policy that is colloquially known as carding.

Although instances of carding began to decrease in July 2014, following the introduction of a regulation requiring police officers to issue a receipt accompanying the generation of every contact card, the same data illustrates that since July 2014, “the proportion of contact cards for people with black skin rose (from 23.3 per cent) to 27.4 per cent,” which “is 3.4 times the proportion of Toronto’s black population, which stands at 8.1 per cent”.

The issue of who is being carded, and in which neighbourhoods, has become the main point of contention surrounding the policy. Increasing media attention, policy changes, and the inauguration of a new Toronto police chief in May of 2015 have all contributed to the considerable and growing controversy regarding street checks.

In April of 2015 Desmond Cole, a freelance journalist working in Toronto, wrote The Skin I’m In: I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black. Following the article’s publication in Toronto Life, in which Cole outlines the racism he has experienced under the guise of street checks, the issue gained significant traction in other media outlets, as well as in general conversation amongst Ontarians. The piece illuminates a reality that most Canadians are eager to keep concealed by the façade of “multiculturalism”: racism continues to challenge and limit Canadians who identify as “visible minorities”. Even in cities like Toronto, where “49 per cent” of people self-identified as a visible minority in 2011, stereotypes about race continue to be institutionalized through means such as police street checks.

When Mark Saunders became Toronto’s first black police chief in May of 2015, many citizens had hopes of seeing the end of carding. This was not the case. Saunders maintained that the elimination of carding would put communities at risk, describing the practice as a means by which police officers are able to “engage with the community”. Surveys suggest, however, that this sentiment is not shared by those who constitute the “community”. To “engage” implies some sort of reciprocal relationship, a reality that is simply not achieved through the arbitrary collection and storage of personal information.

Public discord surrounding the issue lead to a series of open consultations held across Ontario in the summer of 2015, in which participants argued vehemently against the police policy. There is one key fact that thwarts carding proponents’ defensive arguments: there is no evidence to date that street checks help solve crime.

The Law Union of Ontario, argues that the practice of carding undermines public confidence and trust in the police, thus eroding public safety. When people find that they are sought out by police for reasons of race or age, their trust in the police dissipates and, as a result, they may be less likely to respect and seek out officers for help in the future. As a result, in communities where instances of carding are frequent, citizens are more likely to shut out the police, thus hindering legitimate investigations. A Police and Community Engagement Review, similarly, reported that when “face-to-face encounters” are done inappropriately, “they can leave feelings of resentment and suspicion on the part of the community and…can leave Officers feeling unsupported and vulnerable.”

Rather than suggesting changes to carding policies, however, the report recommends increasing officer training in regards to biases. Street checks create a dichotomy between officers and citizens, making it difficult for officers to effectively “serve and protect” when assistance is actually required. Even if empirical evidence was found to support the claim that the policy helps fight crime, carding would, nonetheless, continue to violate “the right not to be arbitrarily detained”, “the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure”, and “the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination”, as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Late in October of 2015 the provincial government announced, following Ontario-wide public consultations, the proposal of new regulations that would see the end of arbitrary stops of citizens by police. The new policy will require officers to “inform a citizen that a stop is voluntary and they have the right to walk away… to provide a reason for the stop” and to provide “documentation about it afterwards”, and to “inform citizens how to file a complaint or access information obtained during the stop”. These regulations fall short, however. There has been little mention of the information that has already been collected and stored by police, which is done so unlawfully according to The Law Union of Ontario.

When the policy proposals were announced late in October, Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi wouldn’t comment on what would happen to information that has already been gathered by police. Does this mean that the thousands of contact cards that have already been created will continue to be used by officers to profile citizens who have not committed crimes? The new regulations stipulate that information collected by police will be reviewed annually and disclosed publicly. This is far better than it was in the past, when said information was never publicly disclosed, but less frequent than many would like to see. A full year is a long time to go about your business without the disclosure of your actions. Is an annual review frequent enough to ensure that police officers are acting without a racial bias or youth bias? More frequent disclosures, even semi-annually, would hold officers more accountable for their actions.

Unfortunately for the Liberal government, which is at last imposing new policy on police street checks, a feeling of distrust has already permeated police-civilian interactions. In the past, many of those who were already aware of their right to refuse the provision of their information to police in random checks did not do so out of fear and anxiety. Will this be any different now? The atmosphere of distrust is already entrenched in the ways that youth and people of colour interact with officers, a feeling that is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

Policy can change the ways in which officers do their jobs, but lingering emotions are often less malleable. On July 1, 2016, when the regulations are set to come into effect, the three teenagers described earlier would now be aware of their right to refuse to interact with the officers. But given the dynamic of authority, would they? These questions can only be answered in the future, with data provided by police, and a thorough review of the attitudes felt by the public towards officers.

More frequent reviews of police practices, as well as extensive and continuous public consultations, would allow policy makers to assess the changing, or unchanging, attitudes of Canadians, and to create policy that ensures a more reciprocal relationship between those in positions of authority, and those who rely on their services to be kept safe. A semi-annual review of police practices and survey of citizens’ attitudes would allow policy-makers to see, more swiftly, if policy is actually being followed and, more importantly, if the policy implemented is actually doing what it is meant to do. If much of our community continues to distrust the police force, more extensive policy changes will be required.

Amelia Bredo is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and History. Her policy interests include immigration, corrections, and social policy. 

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