Weston-Mount Dennis Residents Discuss Police Stops
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Weston-Mount Dennis Residents Discuss Police Stops

Weston-Mount Dennis residents say police carding is hurting their community.

Police superintentent Mark Saunders takes notes during a meeting on police carding and racial profiling.

The Toronto Police Service’s practice of “carding”—that is, documenting contact with residents—is facing renewed criticism from frustrated community groups and individuals. Participants at a Weston-Mount Dennis community meeting, organized by the York Youth Coalition, expressed outrage (but not surprise) at recent reports that, even as crime in the priority-designated neighboorhood is in decline, complaints of ongoing police harrasment and racial profiling are the norm.

Lekan Olawoye, executive director of the For Youth Initiative, cited the community’s desire for more “critical, holistic policing,” and said that police are failing to connect with residents because of “a lack of an authentic relationship with the community and young people.” Olawoye related his own experiences being stopped and questioned as a teenager in Rexdale, saying that even as an adult, “I feel uncomfortable in the realm of police.”

Toronto’s police have used contact cards for decades, but the practice has been expanded since police introduced the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) in 2006, in response to a spike in shooting homicides in the summer of 2005.

Deputy police chief Peter Sloly acknowledged that the practice of carding in neighbourhoods with a history of gun crime has contributed to mistrust and antagonism among residents. “There is absolutely no doubt that some of our best intentions had unintended impacts on the community,” particularly among young Torontonians of African descent, Sloly said. But he defended the broader need for continued police contact and interaction in communities like Weston-Mount Dennis. “We say to [officers], when the radio isn’t busy, make every effort you can to proactively get out and contact the community.”

Councillor Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston) highlighted resident concerns about the dozens of gun-related homicides and crimes in the area in recent years. Residents expect the police to “go out and talk to the residents,” said Nunziata. Her constituents, she added, have been asking for increased police presence and a return to “small-town policing,” where officers and residents interact on a regular basis.

Johanna Macdonald, a lawyer with Justice for Children and Youth, expressed concern that police have not been transparent about collecting personal information during interactions with young people. “The youth were being told that ‘we’d like to take a photograph of you…and if you don’t want that photograph, we’ll take you in,'” said Macdonald of anecdotal reports JFCY staff began receiving from clients a dozen years ago. When residents brought these stories to police, Macdonald says officers told them “this isn’t happening, we’re not doing this.”

Macdonald also questioned the “procedural fairness” of stopping residents and asking them for personal information, and suggested the practice may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Is that a voluntary interaction? With most youth, it’s questionable,” she said. Macdonald called for new safeguards, including a change to the Police Services Act code of conduct that would allow officers who conduct unlawful stops to be sanctioned. The code already lists disrespectful behaviour and unlawful searches as violations.

The Community Legal Aid Services Programme (CLASP) has been partnering with community organizations to collect affidavits from residents who have had negative interactions with police. According to Macdonald, the vast majority of sworn statements received thus far cite unlawful stops as an issue.

Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee said contact cards are meant “to ensure that the process of contact was used for legitimate purposes.” He added, “was the impact necessarily benevolent and beneficial? As deputy Sloly said, not necessarily. That negative impact was not what was intended, so the board has a concern.” Mukherjee referenced the 2007 Human Rights Project Charter, a partnership between the board, the police service, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission that was created to address a number of human rights complaints against the police. The recommendations of that initiative have not “seeped all the way down throughout the organization,” he said.

The Police Services Board has asked Toronto’s Auditor General, Jeff Griffiths, to conduct a review of police contacts to determine, in Mukherjee’s words, “what type of contacts are legitimate policing contacts, and which ones need to be considered because of the negative impact.” The board is also urging Police Chief Bill Blair to consider the cost and feasibility of issuing copies of contact cards to people who are carded.

Residents at the meeting welcomed talk of new accountability measures, but expressed frustration over decades of negative police interaction. Many questioned the police service’s sincerity in addressing concerns about racial profiling. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, a lawyer who has documented his own experiences with alleged racial profiling in the justice system, remarked that “the police can only do what they can get away with.”

“The whole society tolerates racial profiling,” he added.