Editor’s Letter: the cost of police carding is just too high
Since the Toronto Police Service introduced the practice of carding about 10 years ago, they have collected data on over a million Torontonians—and that’s a conservative estimate. On the face of it, the process sounds benign. The police stop you, take out a form and ask you a series of questions: your name, your car’s make and model, your home address, phone number and other details. They note where you are and who you’re with. That information goes back to their division, where a clerk enters it into a massive database.
The advantage of this broad-based fact gathering is obvious. Data, in the digital age, is power. Naturally, the cops want as much information about the citizens they police as possible. They use it to make connections among people of interest in investigations and ultimately to solve crimes. When they want to question the friends of a shooting victim, for instance, all it takes is a few clicks on the keyboard, and presto, they have a slew of names and contact numbers.
But at what price? Desmond Cole, in his vivid memoir “The Skin I’m In,” answers that question by chronicling his long, painful history with police in Ontario. As the Toronto Star proved definitively in its exhaustive data analysis a few years ago, the cops are much more likely to stop a young black man like Cole than a mid-career white mom like me. I’ve never been carded. Desmond Cole has been stopped and interrogated more than 50 times in almost 15 years.
The outgoing police chief Bill Blair, under tremendous public pressure, reluctantly suspended the practice of carding in January pending review. The Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian body that oversees the cops, drew up a set of guidelines for police interactions with the public—a comprehensive reform of carding procedure. And for a brief moment it looked as though this whole ugly carding business was behind us. Significantly, the board recommended that cops only be permitted to stop people when there is a valid public safety purpose, i.e., when they’re preventing or investigating a crime. That’s obviously the right idea. It will make police work harder, but it’s the price we should all have to pay to avoid humiliating and terrorizing citizens like Desmond Cole. In his memoir, he lays out the psychological toll of all that police questioning. After you read it, I’m sure you’ll agree that the cost of carding is just too high.
However, Blair was so unhappy with the recommendations that he refused to implement them. A former judge had to step in to facilitate a compromise between Blair and the board. In the end, the chief got most of what he wanted. In late March, he stood up with Mayor John Tory and Alok Mukherjee, the head of the Police Services Board, and triumphantly announced a new carding policy that looks an awful lot like the old carding policy.
What constitutes a “valid public safety purpose” has been broadened to include not only preventing and investigating offences, but also preserving the peace and “the performance of common law duties, including the duty to protect life and property,” whatever that means. The definition is vague enough to cover the kinds of police interactions that caused the outcry about carding in the first place.
My guess? Desmond Cole can expect to be stopped many more times—until we finally put an end to carding.