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This Short Documentary Explores the Toronto Police’s Racial Profiling Problem

In light of a Toronto Star investigation that revealed the extent to which black people are profiled in Toronto, along with a sweeping policy change in the Toronto Police to revise their profiling tactics, an advocacy group called the Toronto...

This past weekend the Toronto Policing Literacy Initiative (a group of 20 young people who aim to produce “substantive advocacy” about “policing issues and community safety in Toronto”) released this 30 minute documentary about carding. If you haven’t already heard of carding, it’s racial profiling. The term is used when people are randomly stopped, and asked for ID, by the Toronto Police. It’s an issue we’ve covered in the past, but it’s a long conversation that requires further examination—especially given the Toronto Star’s impressive expose on the program, and a recent decision by the TPS Services Board to revise the carding policy.


So, watch the PLI’s doc above and read this op-ed below, written by its director, Dan Epstein.

On Thursday evening, a historic vote took place at the Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian oversight body that governs the Toronto Police Service. The policy, known as the Community Contacts Policy, that the TPSB passed has ostensibly taken away officers’ power to stop and question whomever they please. However, residents of Toronto should not rejoice quite yet. The policy has some pretty clear legal loopholes that would allow officers to continue certain unjust practices. Furthermore, the wounds of carding and racial profiling by the TPS will not heal with only the balm of policy solutions. The policy is, on the surface, very good. But it will take a concerted effort on the part of every TPS officer to make sure that community relations become better.

I have just directed a short film with a group called the Policing Literacy Initiative, which we screened to an audience of community members, activists, Police Service officers, lawyers and academics at City Hall on Saturday. It’s called Crisis of Distrust. We focused on the negative impact that carding policy has had on people of colour across the city. Working on the film, and with the PLI in general, has given me the opportunity to meet some of the most important voices on this subject, and many of them are in the film. The film opens with a young man telling us a story about how he and a friend were stopped while walking home one night. He tells how the officers were investigating a specific offence that had happened some minutes drive away. Rather than representing the kind of carding that the new TPSB policy prohibits, it is an example of what the policy seems to encourage: stops based on investigating or preventing a particular offence.


I’ve spoken with TPS Deputy Chief Peter Sloly on this issue, as well as prominent members of the committee working on the Police and Community Engagement Review started in 2011 and released as a report in the summer of 2013. The TPS seems to be an organization that, at least at the corporate level, wants to change in order to gain the trust of the community. They seem to realize that the cost of information retention and street checks is that the communities they are meant to police no longer trust them. That cost is too great for the TPS and for the city. Police need citizens to trust them so they can do their jobs. But the trust needs to be earned, and it can only be earned if officers consistently show community members that they respect their rights. The Neptune Four incident, the killing of Sammy Yatim, and other high profile cases have conditioned the public to be afraid of police force. People of colour are more likely to be stopped and questioned in Toronto than others, and for that very reason some community members do not trust the motives of the police. Individual interactions between police and community can either help or hurt that perception, and every member of the police service needs to be committed to helpful interactions.

Incoming PLI Coordinator Zakaria Abdulle speaking at Saturday's PLI Community Forum where this documentary was screened at Toronto's City Hall.

The most important part of the new policy is the requirement that community members must freely participate, and that officers have to let community members “know as much as possible in the circumstances about their right to leave and the reason for the contact.” This should be the point that both citizens and officers take to heart above all else. People need to know that when they are stopped by Toronto police officers, that they can leave. If an officer stops you tomorrow and wants to ask you a few questions, but you happen to be on your way home, you can simply say “no.” By requiring that officers communicate this to people, Alok Mukherjee and the TPSB have taken a great step towards building community trust.

Another important part of the policy is the amendment that attorney Peter Rosenthal instigated. Rosenthal argued that the policy would become null if it allowed officers to collect “intelligence relating directly to an identifiable, systemic, criminal problem and pursuant to a service or Division-approved initiative.” Not only could this be interpreted very broadly, but it would allow officers of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) to continue to card at will. In the Toronto Star’s analysis of carding data, they found that TAVIS officers were conducting a disproportionate amount of carding. TAVIS officers do not have a specific division, but respond to ongoing crimes and investigations throughout the city. This means that TAVIS officers are not recognizable in the communities they police, making it hard for community members to understand their motives. In contrast to TAVIS, community policing Initiatives like the Somali Liason Unit demonstrate that the TPS is interested in forming real and lasting community bonds. Enforcement has its place, but the ultimate goal of police in this city is safety, and safety is built out of trust rather than suppression.

The Community Contacts Policy is milestone, and has been needed for years. Every one of its recommendations is a step in the right direction, but the real work of rebuilding community trust needs to take place on the street. Police need to be following the spirit of the policy as much as its letter.

Learn more about the PLI on their website, or follow them on Twitter.