Bill Blair's Vanishing Card Trick Isn't Good Enough
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Bill Blair’s Vanishing Card Trick Isn’t Good Enough

The police chief's quiet suspension of police carding is no remedy for systemic racism in policing.

During an interview on December 30, Dave Trafford of Global News asked Police Chief Bill Blair about the gap in trust between his officers and residents in Toronto’s “more diverse” neighbourhoods. Specifically, Trafford asked how “carding”—the police practice of stopping civilians and collecting their personal information—might be creating trust issues in those neighbourhoods. The chief said, in part, that officers must conduct themselves appropriately, then added, “We also need to do a better job, I think, of communicating in those communities exactly what we’re trying to do there, which is ultimately to keep them safe.”

Two days later, Blair ordered his officers to stop filling out the contact cards that capture the personal information of those who’ve been stopped. To the public, including the many dark-skinned people who have been serially subjected to carding, he said nothing. Blair’s sudden suspension of a practice he has defended for years is astonishing, but the secrecy of the move proves yet again that Blair is unfit to address larger discussions of racist policing in Toronto.

Critics of carding are, at their core, critics of systemic racism in policing. The parents, students, teachers, former politicians, human rights lawyers, and community groups who have criticized racist policing for decades, and throughout Blair’s tenure, are not hung up on specific tactics. They lament that, in general, policing interests seem consistently to trump racialized people’s rights to safety, peace of mind, presumption of innocence, and freedom from arbitrary detention. Blair has refused to concede this, and was willing to order a timeout on carding only in private, which spared him the trouble of having to explain his change of heart.

Police spokesperson Mark Pugash confirmed in an interview yesterday that the carding suspension was never meant to be public knowledge. “This thing got out, as these things sometimes do,” Pugash said. He explained that Blair is preparing a report on carding for the police’s civilian oversight board in February, and that “his position has always been, ‘I speak to them before I speak to anyone else.'” But this explanation is not consistent with Blair’s earlier actions and attitudes.

Last April, the Police Services Board asked Blair for comprehensive reform on all police-civilian interactions, not just the cards. The board requested, among many other things, a clear definition of “public safety purpose” that would inform police contact with the public; an assurance that all police interactions comply with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and respect the protections against discrimination guaranteed under Ontario’s Human Rights Code; education for civilians about reasons for police contact and their right to walk away; and a plan to sort through and destroy personal information obtained unnecessarily throughout years of carding, the vast majority of which yielded no arrests or criminal charges.

Blair has yet to deliver on any of these public requests. In light of that, his decision to quietly suspend only the documentation of discriminatory and potentially illegal police interactions, without addressing larger concerns, is deeply troubling and misguided.

In November, after the board had received the findings of a community survey on carding, the chief’s alleged custom of consulting the board before speaking publicly was nowhere in evidence. Blair listened as a presentation on the Community Assessment of Police Practices report revealed damning resident feedback on his officers’ conduct. Mere seconds after the board voted to receive the report, requesting that the chief “provide his response and assessment” of it at the next meeting, Blair was in the hall with the media, condemning the report’s findings and questioning its authors’ credentials.

Blair has consistently run away from comprehensive critiques of police-community interactions, and his suspension of carding must be seen in this light. During the interview with Trafford in late December, Blair had the nerve to suggest that Torontonians were simply adopting the messages of police reformers in the United States.

In reference to the now infamous “Stop and Frisk” police program that has caused public anger in New York City, Blair told Trafford, “Much of the rhetoric around what was taking place in New York, people just pick that rhetoric up and drop it in the city of Toronto, as if it was what was happening here. Quite frankly, it’s not.” Of course, Blair also said in November that CAPP participants, who had reported on their experiences within 31 division in northwest Toronto, were confusing their own impressions of police with a “history of tension” that had existed in the area in the 1980s—and that has apparently disappeared since.

And in 2012, when Toronto Star reporters showed Blair evidence that police had been stopping almost every black man in certain neighbourhoods, he replied, “I can’t imagine that that’s true.”

Blair’s dismissal of the experiences, observations, and specific demands of local residents is breathtaking. He ignores residents’ accounts of their own lives, and insults them with half measures he cannot even be bothered to announce or justify. Blair’s vanishing card trick, in the last months of his tenure, is far too little too late for those whose rights and trust have been serially violated.

Rather than explain the leaked news of his decision, Blair has vowed (through his communications team) to say nothing on the suspension of carding until the police board meets next month. Meanwhile, his critics wonder why he chose not to tell residents about changes to one of the most broad and invasive policing approaches in modern Canadian history.

“We haven’t really been having this conversation about why we have these interactions in the first place,” said Andray Domise, a black community activist, in an interview yesterday, adding that he’s tired of the police’s failure to acknowledge the basic human rights of black people. “I’m not going to be happy about this until I know that the practice of racial profiling is going to be ended once and for all.”

Police Association leader Mike McCormack pleaded ignorance about the carding change this week, although he assured the public that while police are changing the way they document their conduct, that conduct itself will not change. McCormack’s words hold no comfort for those demanding systemic changes in policing: the buck stops with Blair, who has now denied the public both documentation and an explanation of his officers’ actions.