Police Carding Policy Falls Short
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Police Carding Policy Falls Short

Critical questions must be resolved before the final policy is approved.

Photo by DuBrawmk, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

The Toronto Police Services Board has revised its draft policy on the controversial practice of carding, but there are many unanswered questions ahead of tonight’s vote on the new guidelines.

The TPSB moved to draft the policy after outrage grew over the controversial practice, which involves stopping civilians and collecting their personal information. The arbitrary police stops have disproportionately affected Torontonians of African and Caribbean descent.

The updated policy [PDF] on “Community Contacts” lists public safety purposes that would allow police to stop civilians and document and store their personal information. They can do so in order to investigate or prevent a specific offence, to ensure a civilian is not at risk, and to collect “intelligence relating directly to an identifiable, systemic criminal problem and pursuant to a Service or Division-approved initiative.”

While this final public safety purpose is not as broadly defined as the “general investigation” provision police have been criticized for using in the past, it could end up serving as a catch-all rationale for arbitrary or poorly defined police–civilian interactions—the board should explain why the investigation of systemic crime requires police officers to stop and document specific people.

In his remarks to the TPSB at last month’s meeting, criminal lawyer Frank Addario, whom the board hired to draft its policy, asked some important questions about police–civilian relations. “How do you increase the legitimacy of the service?” Addario challenged board members. “How do you come back from the reputational hit that happened as a result of the publicity around this issue?”

These questions should be central to the carding discussion. However, the objectives set out in the policy do not address the harm already caused by carding. On the contrary, the policy seems eager to classify the practice as a thing of the past, and addresses the destructive impact on Torontonians only once, using extremely passive language:

The Board recognizes that the way in which some conversations have been conducted and recorded has adversely affected individuals and communities and has had a demonstrated negative impact on public trust.

While no one policy could repair the damage done through arbitrary and discriminatory police practices, this falls well short even as a first attempt. Carding has classified untold civilians as “known to police” and has subjected racialized people to unjust scrutiny and hardship. A failure to acknowledge this in plain language does not bode well for a police force seeking to rebuild public trust.

The carding policy also fails to mention any disciplinary measures for police officers who engage in arbitrary stops or racial profiling. Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, is one of many critics calling for consequences “up to and including dismissal” for officers who abuse their discretion in stopping civilians.

Some board members and police leaders argue that it is the responsibility of Chief Bill Blair, not the board, to discipline officers. Yet Blair has shown little willingness to address the issue of discipline on his own. In order to restore the trust destroyed by arbitrary police stops, police must outline specific consequences for officers who engage in such damaging and potentially unlawful behaviour.

Many other questions remain unanswered. The board has vowed to destroy carding data collected before July 2013 but has not specified a time limit for the retention of data collected in the future. There are no references to the practice of issuing receipts for carding interactions; the police have seemingly abandoned this practice, even though its implementation coincided with a sharp decline in carding across the city.

The board deserves credit for incorporating policy feedback from advocates and community members—the updated policy instructs officers to inform civilians of their rights and requires that police receive instruction about the power imbalance at play during police-civilian interactions. However, if the board is intent on maintaining carding, even in much more restricted circumstances, it must address critical unresolved issues before the final policy is approved.

The Toronto Police Services Board meets tonight at 6 p.m. at police headquarters (40 College Street) to review and vote on the final draft of its carding policy.