A huge wave, represented by about 50 high-profile Canadians, rocked Mayor John Tory’s proverbial boat this week. The “wave” consisted of a former chief justice of Ontario, three former mayors (one of whom is a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission), several former politicians and business leaders.
Identifying themselves as Concerned Citizens to End Carding, they held a news conference steps away from Mayor Tory’s office at City Hall to denounce the controversial police practice.
The result is that the mayor has changed his tune, reversing his position on “carding,” the controversial practice by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) of collecting and retaining information about individuals with whom they engage, but who are not being detained or under suspicion of committing a crime.
In his announcement, the Mayor said: “The issue of community engagements, or carding as it has become known, has eroded public trust to a level that is clearly unacceptable.As mayor, it is up to me to do whatever I can do to restore that trust . . . And so I am announcing today my intention, at the next meeting of the police services board on June 18, to seek the permanent cancellation of carding once and for all.”
“We believe carding violates the human rights of citizens, it goes against the principles of our Charter Rights …” – Concerned Citizens to End Carding
It is not often that political leaders reverse their positions so openly. Early reaction has been mostly positive. The damage, however, may have already been done. That will become clearer when Tory faces the electorate in another three years.
The Use of Carding
The carding practice was revealed in a Toronto Star investigative report in 2012 under the banner headline “Known to police.” It uncovered the fact the majority of persons stopped by the police whose information was taken were young black males, and their information was being kept in a database, apparently for future reference when a crime is committed.
Earlier this year, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) had approved a policy on community engagement, which required police officers to inform individuals who are not under suspicion of any criminal activity that they have the right to end the engagement. If officers took a person’s information, they would also be required to provide a “receipt” indicating why the person was stopped.
William (Bill) Blair, then the outgoing chief of police, had a problem with the requirement and managed to get a watered-down version – without the above requirements of the policy – approved. The reaction and subsequent heat from the black community increased.
Desmond Cole: A Catalyst
In May, Toronto Life published a cover story by Desmond Cole, “The Skin I’m In.” It catalogues his experiences with the police, and outlines the emotional impact that they had and have on him – an impact that is shared by many black men, young or old.
The article became a sensation and was, indeed, a catalyst for the Concerned Citizens group to declare its opposition to carding.
[Saunders’] stance, if continued, will certainly erode any goodwill he may have earned from the black community, and the wider community, as demonstrated by the Concerned Citizens group.
In its statement, the group notes: “We all need to oppose carding vehemently … We are offended by the notion of casually and routinely stopping citizens, outside of police investigations of actual criminal acts that have occurred, to question and record, and then store personal data in police files … We believe carding violates the human rights of citizens, it goes against the principles of our Charter Rights …”
Last Friday, the chair of the TPSB, Dr. Alok Mukherjee wrote an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star: “We are at risk of turning into a surveillance society” in which he also declared a change of heart.
“I believe the Toronto Police Services Board must now declare unequivocally that information generated from informal contacts with members of the public, which are not related to any criminal investigation or likelihood of a criminal investigation, must not be recorded in any police database,” he wrote.
Where the Police Chief Stands
Mark Saunders, who is black, is the recently appointed chief of police, succeeding Bill Blair. He has picked up the ball, voicing support for carding as a legitimate investigative tool. He has tried to cushion this support by suggesting that there would be changes in implementing the policy by eliminating random stops.
The community is not buying it.
His stance, if continued, will certainly erode any goodwill he may have earned from the black community, and the wider community, as demonstrated by the Concerned Citizens group.
Adding to the community’s concern about Chief Saunders’ position, a recent report in the Toronto Star that revealed an internal memo prepared by Saunders while he was a staff superintendent.
In the memo, he essentially tried to debunk the notion of racial profiling and carding, suggesting that analyses did not support “notions or activities of racially biased policing practices.” According to the Star, his then-superior officer, Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, also black, took issue with Saunders’ analysis and conclusion.
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, in the wake of Mayor Tory’s conversion, has also reaffirmed the association’s position, and that of the chief’s: getting rid of carding would have a negative impact on “community safety.” Exactly how is unclear.
It would appear that both Chief Saunders and the police association fail to make the connection that their defence of carding’s use and the fact that the majority of the carded residents are black imply that they believe that members of the black community are responsible for most of the crimes and criminal activities in the city.
If the black chief of police believes that, what chance do we have to change relations between the police and the black community?
Patrick Hunter is a communications consultant and a columnist for Share Newspaper. He is a former communications director at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and has worked in government and the news media.