Carding, a procedure also known as a “street check,” is a police action where — outside the domain of a formal arrest, detention, or execution of a search warrant — an officer stops a pedestrian and asks them to provide personal information, which is then stored in a database. Police use this technique to gain valuable information that can aid them in their duties, particularly when they are in the process of investigating gang activity or apprehending repeat offenders.
In recent years carding has become highly controversial, with some calling it an arbitrary violation of Charter rights that overwhelmingly targets minorities. Indeed, studies have shown that — often due to subconscious racial profiling on the part of officers — black and Indigenous citizens are disproportionately represented in interactions with police.
The provincial government has acknowledged these issues, and on March 22 they announced new regulations to ensure that the police balance their investigative duties with respect for citizens.
Beginning in 2017 police officers in Ontario will have to explain to individuals on the street why they have been stopped. They are legally bound to inform them of their rights: that they are free to leave at any time, and are under no obligation to answer any questions. Furthermore, the reason for the stop itself cannot be the person’s race, their incidental presence in a high-crime neighbourhood, or the fact that they have refused to answer questions or attempted to leave.
In order to ensure accountability, officers must also provide their name and badge number, as well as contact information for the Independent Police Review Director, in case a complaint is made. Finally, officers must submit all carding records to their police service within 30 days of their completion, in anticipation of review by the chief of police to ensure that the street checks have been conducted lawfully.
These updates are necessary for public concerns about carding to be addressed, and will reduce the likelihood of improper, racially motivated street checks in the future. It is clear, however, that police-community relations in our city remain tense. As I write this column, protests have been ongoing outside the Toronto Police Headquarters for over a week, following the announcement that no charges will be laid in the 2015 officer-involved shooting of Andrew Loku. An independent investigation determined that Loku, a 45-year-old Sudanese man with a history of mental illness (including an incident earlier that same day), had been advancing on two officers and ignored multiple demands to drop a hammer he was brandishing.
It is clear that changes to carding, which are intended to balance the value of the practice for police intelligence with respect for the rights of individual citizens, are an important part of the effort to strengthen the public’s trust in the police. They are, however, not enough. More changes can be made to ensure that the police are accountable to the public, in order to facilitate a more meaningful exchange and cooperation between police and communities, and in turn to protect citizens more effectively.
For starters, the functioning of the provincial Special Investigations Unit, which investigates all deaths, serious injury, and alleged sex crimes involving police officers, needs to become much more transparent.
When an investigation is concluded and no charges are laid — as in the case of Andrew Loku — all evidence should be made public. If the SIU expects to convince Ontario residents that nearly all police shootings are justified, they should be able to explain exactly how and why, for each individual incident.
Furthermore, to respond to concerns about excessive police force, the Toronto Police Service should continue providing officers with options that complement lethal firearms, such as tasers and sock guns. They should also move forward with the acquisition of body cameras so that shootings, street checks, and other contentious incidents can be reviewed more thoroughly.
All of these changes should be pursued by police services in the name of transparency and responsibility to the public. That said, in the name of building trust, there are also actions that we, as Toronto residents, should take to solidify relationships between police and the community.
We should respect the rule of law and the individuals who enforce it. Police officers maintain the peace and order that make our democracy and high quality of life possible. Accordingly, it is wrong to assault, harass, or otherwise forcibly interfere with their duties, no matter how much we may disagree with the law being enforced, or the action being taken. We may express dissent in other ways, but in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies a resort to violence — against civilians or police officers.
Additionally, we should try our best to imagine life in their shoes. Police officers regularly face dangerous, immensely challenging situations that many students on a quiet, ivy-walled university campus will likely never even encounter. The very least we can do is acknowledge this fact. Recently, in partnership with the Toronto Police College, local media participated in a simulation of a violent scenario that officers may engage with on the job, in what was no doubt a humbling experience. When it comes to analyzing police actions, maybe the rest of us would all benefit from a little humility as well.
None of this intends to downplay the real issues and criticisms targeted at the more questionable parts of police practices, nor to doubt that there are vital improvements to be made in law enforcement, just as there are in all facets of government, especially at the local level. But the way to achieve that change is to work with the police, not against them.
The mission statement of the Toronto Police Service reads, “We are dedicated to delivering police services, in partnership with our communities, to keep Toronto the best and safest place to be.” If we want Toronto to be at its best and its safest, we should see the police as partners, not enemies — and they should see us in the same way.
Emmett Choi is a fifth-year student at Victoria College studying philosophy and American studies. His column appears every three weeks.