The FOI that changed policing in Toronto would be difficult to do today with falling journalism revenues.
What we now know about police carding can be traced back to 1999 when a police bulletin that described a suspect as “yellow” inspired a Toronto Star journalist to file a freedom-of-information request about how Toronto Police Service (TPS) classify race and explore what that data says about policing in the city.
Fast forward 17 years and “carding” is a household word in Toronto. The province has introduced new regulations in an attempt to ban carding and end racial profiling by police, and it has helped spark conversations about race in the city.
Every civic-minded Torontonian knows police have stopped and identified young, black men disproportionately with little to no accountability for how that information is stored or used.
But what if almost two decades later, despite the clear contribution to the public interest, we couldn’t get that information today?
We know what we know about carding because the Toronto Star filed a series of extensive freedom-of-information requests for the Toronto Police Services databases of arrest and carding data. It’s an extraordinary story and a fascinating story—especially if you write a column about freedom-of-information in Toronto.
The battle for carding data took years and, according to one of the reporters involved, cost the Star well over $1 million in fees and legal expenses.
Jim Rankin said it began with the police blotter that described a suspect as “yellow,” which, it turned out, had come from an internal police database that uses race-based colour codes to describe suspects.
Reporters had long heard from black residents about police racial bias, said Rankin, but that insight into police record keeping made them realize they might be able to prove it the anecdotes with numbers. In 2000, the Star filed an FOI request for the police databases with racial information included.
It took two years, but the Star eventually got police data on race and arrests. But through mediation with the police, the Star agreed not to receive the data on carding as well.
“At the time, we didn’t really understand what it would mean,” said Rankin.
The Star published a groundbreaking feature on race and crime in 2002, but, without the carding data, it only told part of the story.
“Blacks arrested by Toronto police are treated more harshly than whites, a Toronto Star analysis of crime data shows,” it began.
“Black people, charged with simple drug possession, are taken to police stations more often than whites facing the same charge. Once at the station, accused blacks are held overnight, for a bail hearing, at twice the rate of whites. The Toronto crime data also shows a disproportionate number of black motorists are ticketed for violations that only surface following a traffic stop. This difference, say civil libertarians, community leaders and criminologists, suggests police use racial profiling in deciding whom to pull over.”
The Star filed another request in 2003—this time asking for the data on carding to be included as well, said Rankin.
They got it but only after a seven-year legal battle.
The Star had to go to court to argue that the electronic database was indeed a record that the public has a right to under Ontario’s Freedom of Information law—a ruling many an investigative journalist can thank today. They also fought for—and won at the Court of Appeal—an order that the government must release the record, even if there is some programming required.
The programming was doable but not simple. The Star wanted police to release the database intact, but, since the police couldn’t breach the privacy of the people who’d been carded by releasing the names, they had to replace each individual with a unique randomly generated number.
“It’s a good ruling for journalists who seek raw data,” Rankin said.
It allowed the Star to find out that black people in general were being carded disproportionately, and that wasn’t limited to only a small number of citizens or a small number of officers, said Rankin.
The series has undoubtedly changed Toronto.
“The Star, through our work on the data, was able to highlight the numbers of what was happening on the streets and provide a platform for all of these personal anecdotes and experiences we’ve been hearing for decades and buttress them with data,” said Rankin.
But he attributes the tipping in attitudes toward carding to “The Skin I’m In,” a Toronto Life feature by former Torontoist staff writer and now Star columnist Desmond Cole.
“It built on all our work, but it also connected personally with a larger audience that perhaps wasn’t paying close enough attention to the Star’s work over the years,” he said.
That work didn’t come cheap. Former publisher and current chair of the Torstar board, John Honderich, pegged the cost of the first 2002 feature at $1 million in staffing and legal fees, said Rankin.
That cost includes the lawyers work on the first FOI and their defense of the Star in a lawsuit from the Toronto Police Association, which filed a lawsuit against the paper for a whopping $2 billion (it was unsuccessful) in 2002.
“That doesn’t include any of the subsequent stuff like the seven-year court battle for carding data,” he said. “The initial one was over a million and you’ve got to imagine there was a lot more spent after that too.”
The Star was behind the project 100 per cent, and it wouldn’t have been possible to get the data without the institutional backing, said Rankin. It’s a sobering thing to hear because the freedom of information process is open to all citizens and, in theory, makes information citizens have a right to accessible to everyone, whether or not they enjoy the backing of a major media organization.
It was especially sobering to hear Rankin say it in our interview, conducted on Monday, the day before the Star announced 48 layoffs due to declining advertising revenue.
“It’s hard to imagine in the current environment many media outlets that would be able to do this,” he said.