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The Massive Police Database of Information on Black Torontonians Should Be Destroyed

The police say the disproportionate cataloguing of blacks was unintentional, yet they'd like to keep all the detailed information they've collected throughout the process on our whereabouts, our addresses, our movements, our relationships—just in case.

Desmond Cole

For at least a decade, Toronto's police force has been quietly building a massive database of the black residents it is supposed to serve. This is not a catalogue of convicted criminals—most black people in the database are not suspected of any crime, at least not in any official sense. Police simply document us in case they ever need to identify us later.

In Toronto we use the term "carding" to describe the police practice of stopping civilians who are not suspected of a crime, and documenting their personal information. For years, this practice was a secret; now we know it exists, and that it has excessively targeted Toronto's black residents. The retention of information collected in such a dubious and discriminatory manner is an insult to black residents. Yet police plan to not only continue carding, but to keep the information from millions of individual contacts in a database for years to come—just in case.

Last week, outgoing Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced that he had, in partnership with the police oversight board, developed new rules about carding. The police have been conducting the practice without formal regulations, and only changed course after an eye-opening Toronto Star investigation exposed carding's shocking scope and bias: In 2013, 27 percent of the people Toronto police carded were black, even though we only represent about eight percent of the population. The public knows almost nothing about how our personal information has been stored, accessed, and shared.

Under the proposed new carding regulations, police can continue carding people. They do not have to inform civilians that an interaction is voluntary, and that we have the right to leave. Police also don't have to tell us why we are being stopped and documented in the first place. Under these conditions, the police force is free to expand its existing database, which reportedly includes children as young as ten.

The cops don't have to provide us with a receipt showing that they've documented us as gang members or uncooperative subjects, that they've labeled us "Jamaican" or "Somali" even though, if asked, we might call ourselves Canadian. Again, these subjective recordings of our identities will find their way into the carding database, and we will be forced to deal with any assumptions the people who can access it may make about us.

Mayor John Tory hailed the police's defiant plan as a necessary compromise when he spoke at a press conference last week. "It is yet another landmark where we here in the city of Toronto lead in showing ourselves, but also showing others around the world, how we can address difficult, complex issues which are at the core of how we live together," a tone-deaf Tory said.

As a police board member himself, the mayor seemed unfazed that Chief Blair had sidestepped his oversight group's major reforms and upheld the idea that the database full of recklessly obtained information about black people is still a legitimate policing tool. Instead, Tory spoke instead of "the absolute commitment by Chief Blair to bias-free policing."

This is the polite, sophisticated racism that strangles the spirits of black Torontonians. We are asked to accept a world where police classify us not as criminals, but as people who must be monitored in the name of public safety, as if there is a difference. We are asked to give up our legal rights and human dignity to make those around us feel more comfortable.

Black people are "known to police" simply for existing—we are over-documented in every single Toronto neighbourhood, regardless of its location, average income, or racial diversity. In fact, the Star's investigation revealed that the more white residents there are in a neighbourhood, the more likely a black person is to be carded there.

The Star also examined carding of black males aged 15–24 who were carded in their own neighbourhoods between 2008 and 2012: the number of black youth carded during that period actually exceeds the number of 15–24-year-old black youth in Toronto.

The police say the disproportionate cataloguing of blacks was unintentional, yet they'd like to keep all the detailed information they've collected throughout the process on our whereabouts, our addresses, our movements, our relationships—just in case.

In his remarks last week, Tory noted that "an unacceptable level of distrust has arisen between our police and communities of colour in this city over time." He failed to cite, as one obvious and relevant reason for this, the prevalence of thousands of innocent black people in a police database, the past and ongoing uses of which are completely unknown to the public.

The mayor expressed no remorse for numerous reports that carding has been used to evaluate the performance of individual officers, whose promotions and salaries were therefore based, in part, on the number of people they carded. Tory seemed unaware or unconcerned that police might understandably continue to monitor, stop, question, and document someone because they are already in the database, and because our police board allows for the continued use of that database.

Tory promised that the new carding rules, which don't even require cops to tell black people why we are being documented, will "begin the process of and re-establishing and strengthening that vital trust." In this distorted reality, the value of black life is measured not in love or justice, but in submission to authority. We are told to trust the same forces that have systematically abused us, to continue to submit to regular inspections of personal character—just in case.

On numerous occasions, I myself have been stopped and documented by our police. If they ask me from now on I will refuse, but my resistance won't erase the information that has already been collected about me. I may never really trust the police, but if that is their goal, I have some more appropriate first steps: the police should forward me a copy of all the carding data they have ever collected about me, and repeat this process for every Torontonian. Then our cops should delete the tainted contents of their carding database forever.

The Toronto Police Services Board will meet at 2 PM on Thursday at police headquarters, 40 College Street, to consider the new carding procedures.

Follow Desmond Cole on Twitter.

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