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After Years of Outcry, Toronto Could Soon End Controversial Policing Practice

Toronto's mayor wants to cancel "carding,” a practice that has been found to disproportionately target black and brown people. But similar data gathering programs remain in other parts of Ontario and police say it’s vital to their work.

by Arthur White
Jun 8 2015, 11:45pm

Photo by Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Nigel Barriffe, a teacher at Toronto's Greenholme Junior Middle School, hears the same story every month. This time, a grade eight student was on his way home from basketball practice. A police officer stopped him and asked him what he was up to.

"He felt like he was only picked on because he was black," Barriffe told VICE News. "He felt helpless."

The police call interactions like that "community engagement," but the practice more commonly known as "carding" has been a longstanding source of friction between police and black Torontonians, who say they're disproportionately targeted.

This Sunday, in a watershed moment in the saga, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced he will move to cancel carding, arguing that it had "eroded public trust" and that the city should "start fresh."

Still, similar programs remain in place across Ontario, prompting many to call for a province-wide ban, even as police say it's vital to their work.

Although there is currently a moratorium on carding, Toronto's new police chief Mark Saunders has long defended the practice. It calls on officers to stop citizens, ask questions, and record information in a searchable database, even when they have no reason to suspect those people of a specific crime. Saunders has said he is open to making the stops less "random."

Toronto police statistics have shown that black and brown males are significantly more likely to be stopped. Media reports have highlighted how refusal sometimes provokes a violent police response.

After a number of prominent Torontonians publicly called for an end to the practice — and local journalist Desmond Cole detailed the dozens of times he has been carded by police — Mayor Tory said he would bring a motion to the city's Police Services Board to cancel it.

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

Tory's motion will likely pass. Board chair Alok Mukerjee recently published an editorial in the Toronto Star saying that "there is no justification for this practice to continue."

"We will not let this city turn into a surveillance society against those who live here because of their race, ethnicity, skin color, age or socio-economic status," he wrote.

Barriffe, who also serves as president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, is pleased about Mayor Tory's "change of heart," but says it's unfortunate it has taken this long to get to this point.

"It's disappointing because we've deputed in front of the board on numerous occasions. They've had this information," he told VICE News. "It wasn't until people with mainstream political power spoke up that this mayor changed his mind."

Anthony Morgan, policy and research lawyer at Toronto's African Canadian Legal Clinic, says he's far from confident that Tory's move will have a meaningful impact on police practices.

"We're afraid that the practice could go underground if we're not careful about shaping the details about what police interactions will look like going forward," he told VICE News.

Morgan is also afraid that Chief Saunders, who is Toronto's first black police chief, will be able to ignore the board's ruling.

"[Previous] Chief [Bill] Blair stalled and Saunders knows he can stall," he says. "They're not going to fire him."

That's also got New Democrat member of provincial parliament Jagmeet Singh worried. He says that there are "significant issues" around police accountability and oversight. Singh is encouraged by Tory's proposed motion, but says he's only "cautiously optimistic" that it will be implemented.

And even if Toronto gets rid of carding, that won't be the end of the debate. Police forces across Ontario do what they call "street checks," which also ask officers to record information from encounters with potentially innocent citizens.

In response, Singh plans to introduce a bill to ban street checks, or anything else smacking of racial profiling, in the Ontario legislature this fall.

"My call for a province-wide strategy is because, even though I'm happy that we might see a resolution to this in Toronto, that doesn't mean we're going to see a solution in other parts of Ontario where racialized youth are impacted," he told VICE News.

The Ottawa Police Service is currently doing a review of their street check program, and plan to set out clear guidelines about when officers should stop people and record their data.

Acting Inspector Mark Patterson is leading the review. Though he's all for clarifying the rules, he warns that any attempt to significantly alter the system will make it harder to catch criminals.

"Street checks are a crucial component of policing to keep our community safe. I know because I've used them," he told VICE News. "I would hate to see any police organization stop the practice."

He admits that certain groups may be more likely to get stopped and questioned, but says that this simply results from the fact that the police target certain neighborhoods more than others, and doesn't reflect any bias on the part of police. If communities with high gang activity happen to have a higher proportion of black or Middle Eastern residents, he says, then "obviously there's going to be a higher percentage of them coming up on street checks."

Some activists, including Morgan, have called on police to at least advise citizens that they have the right to refuse to answer questions. Patterson says such a move would undermine the entire point of the program.

Follow Arthur White on Twitter: @jjjarthur

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