Officers have yet to explain why they stopped a young man whom they eventually charged with assault.
We can learn a lot from the recently publicized video of a black man being confronted and ultimately arrested by Toronto police. The video shows an unidentified young man, who was arrested in the wee hours on Monday and charged with assaulting a police officer, putting his cell phone into a police cruiser, presumably to film the name badge of one of the cops who had stopped him. Moments later, the officer exits his cruiser and rushes the man filming him—the officer can be heard saying, “You do not reach inside a fucking police vehicle!” We then hear the young man screaming as his camera shakes violently. “Get this motherfucker down!” the officer says.
For some, the lesson is a simple restatement of the officer’s remark—don’t get too close to the police and their equipment. The more important lesson, though, is that young black men in our city seem unable to avoid police interactions even when they haven’t violated the laws police are sworn to uphold. It is easy to scrutinize someone’s decision to breach an officer’s personal space—but there is a much greater need to scrutinize police interventions in public spaces, and their subsequent decisions to breach the privacy, safety, and freedoms of innocent black people.
Police recently suspended the controversial practice of carding—that is, the practice of stopping and documenting citizens who are not being accused of a crime. As we argued earlier this month, that suspension failed to address larger questions of racist profiling and harassment by Toronto police. While we can assume the young man who filmed his interaction with police was not being carded, the circumstances of his detention are troubling and deserve serious investigation.
The young man—we’ll call him Mike, the name he uses on the Youtube account where he posted the video—claims police confronted him as he exited his rental vehicle and asked him for documents related to the car. The police have the legal right to ask a person for this information, as long as they have a good reason. Mike’s claim is that the police never gave him a reason for stopping him, and his video provides evidence to support this.
The video begins with Mike approaching a police cruiser with two officers seated inside. The officer in the driver’s seat rolls down his window, and Mike says, “Can I have my papers back please?” When the officer refuses, Mike continues to ask questions: “Why can’t I have my papers back?” The officer in the passenger’s seat begins to say, “When we’re done with the investigation—” and is cut off by his colleague, who says, “‘Cause you’re being investigated right now under the Highway Traffic Act.”
The Highway Traffic Act contains over 300 pages of legislation. Based on what we can see on the video, it seems the officers chose not to tell Mike exactly which part of the Act they believed him to have violated. Both of them appeared to believe that informing Mike he was under investigation was a sufficient answer. David Anber, a Toronto lawyer who deals regularly with traffic offences, told Torontoist during a phone interview this morning that officers must have a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed in order to stop and question someone.
“Those are interesting cases, simply because if it’s found that it wasn’t a proper use of his [the officer’s] powers, then he would be found to not be in the lawful execution of his duties,” said Anber. “If it’s not the lawful execution of his duties, the person has the right to resist arrest, and he wouldn’t be convicted with assaulting a police officer.” It is also interesting that while Mike was charged with assaulting an officer, he faces no charges related to his vehicle, which was what allegedly caught the cops’ interest in the first place.
The Community Assessment of Police Practices survey, which the Police Services Board commissioned to study police conduct within 31 division—the very area in which Mike was stopped—is full of stories from residents who say police stop them for no reason. Chief Bill Blair and police association president Mike McCormack blasted the CAPP survey, yet this incident reinforces its findings: a young black man was stopped and asked for personal documents, given a vague reason for the interaction, and rightly feared that his rights and dignity were under attack.
The police are investigating this incident—that’s a good start. They need to produce the exact reason Mike was stopped or else dismiss the criminal charges that hang over him. McCormack told the National Post that the incident may be a case of “police baiting.” The less sensational possibility is that a savvy young man, who lives in a neighbourhood where police regularly harass people like him without cause, was trying to protect himself and hold the police to account. Mike’s actions were brash, but they make perfect sense in a climate where black residents are routinely denied the presumption of innocence.