TORONTO – Ontario will regulate but not ban police street checks, a controversial tactic known in Toronto as carding and a practice critics say amounts to racial profiling.
It’s not acceptable for police to stop and question a member of a racialized community for no reason then to record that person’s information in a database, Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi said Tuesday.
“It is clear that the status quo in these cases is not acceptable and cannot continue,” he said.
But when asked why he wouldn’t eliminate police street checks altogether, Naqvi said it’s important both for police to be able to engage with the communities and that they’re able to investigate any suspicious activity.
Desmond Cole, a journalist and activist who has spoken out about his own experiences of being carded, said the practice often amounts to racial profiling. He says he’s not against police having informal conversations with members of the community, nor is he against police interviewing people in formal investigations.
“When I say carding, I am talking about the police practice in Toronto that has been rampant of stopping people who the police themselves admit are not suspected of a crime and taking their information,” Cole said Tuesday.
“That particular practice cannot be reformed and it must be eliminated…If you’re not under investigation, and you’re not suspected of a crime, there’s no reason for police to want to document you in the first place.”
Naqvi acknowledged there is “ample” evidence of bias and discrimination in police street checks. Premier Kathleen Wynne, speaking at an unrelated announcement in Cambridge, Ont., said she wants to put safeguards in place to ensure people are not being discriminated against based on their skin colour or background.
Under the Police Services Act, officers already must respect and protect rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code. But Naqvi said he wants to ensure there is “no vagueness” around that principle.
Under Supreme Court of Canada case law, police officers already need an “articulable cause” to stop someone, Naqvi noted. And people are under no obligation to identify themselves to police who stop them in street checks, Naqvi said.
“You are free to walk away if you choose to do so, under the charter,” he said.
But it’s not that simple, argued Cole. Police are authority figures who can suggest that even though someone has the right to walk away, it would be in their best interest to answer questions.
Bruce Chapman, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said most members of the public want to help police protect their communities. The association also wants police check procedures that are consistent and free of bias, but won’t impede an officer’s ability to conduct investigations that can lead to an arrest, he said.
“We don’t want to have a situation in the future whereby a police officer would have been able to obtain information that led to the arrest of a suspect and didn’t, as a result of a flawed policy,” Chapman said in a statement.
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, meantime, said it wants to ensure an appropriate balance between public safety and personal rights.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has said police services should limit officer discretion to stop and question people, and require officers to tell people they stop about their right to leave and not answer questions, collect race-based data to identify bias and provide transparency through receipts.
The provincial Liberal government had been hesitant to weigh in on police operations despite mounting controversy, particularly in Toronto. But Naqvi said Tuesday that the government will consult over the summer with community organizations, police, civil liberties groups and the public before bringing in regulations in the fall.