Why an end to police carding is only the beginning

Why an end to police carding is only the beginning

(Image: Jack Landau)

I was asked, in November, to join a panel on police relations with young Torontonians. Early on in the event, police chief Bill Blair took questions from high school students. When one of them brought up the uncomfortable topic of police carding, Chief Blair said, “You have to strike a balance between community concerns and community safety.”

I knew that the balance wasn’t being struck. Later on during the event, the other panelists and I spoke with those students about their own experiences with police. I asked the students if they had themselves been carded. A couple of them raised their hands. Another panelist asked if they had been stopped by police, but not necessarily “carded.” Of the roughly twenty kids in front of us, most of them—every non-white child in that group—raised their hands.

We asked how it made them feel, and the answers were heartbreaking. Some felt “singled out,” others felt they couldn’t trust police, and still others said that, if they had a problem or felt unsafe, they would find someone other than an officer to talk to. The kids’ experience was consistent with the statistics: in neighbourhoods throughout the city, people with dark skin have been shown to be two to 10 times more likely to be carded than white people.

The difficulty with the conversation about carding is how unclear many of us are on what “carding” actually is. (For anyone still unfamiliar, it’s a police investigative technique that involves questioning people not suspected of any particular crime and logging their information in a database.) The problem became apparent a couple of weeks ago, when the media learned that Chief Blair had quietly ordered a temporary suspension of all carding activities. While it was obvious that police would no longer issue contact cards, what wasn’t clear was how police intended to address the real issue, the one that those kids had seemed to grasp so intuitively: racial profiling. If officers would no longer be carding members of the public, would they also stop targeting black Torontonians for questioning?

Our only clue came from Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, who said the suspension “should not have an impact with the way officers interact with the public, only with how those interactions are recorded.” And, unsurprisingly, like Blair, he framed the issue as a “fragile balancing act.”

We often fall into the trap of describing community relations this way, but there is no balancing act to be found here. A Torontonian of colour who doesn’t break the law has no obligation—regardless of what we believe about crime statistics—to give up his or her rights in order to make a police officer’s job easier. To say otherwise is to say that certain Torontonians are entitled to live free of police harassment, while others, by virtue of their skin colour and the neighbourhood they happen to be in, owe an additional social tax for the benefit of “community safety”—even though there’s no proof racial profiling of any kind has helped make any community safer.

And whose safety are we talking about, exactly? If it’s that of of the residents in communities being profiled, TPS is undermining its own goals by eroding their trust. Last year, a disturbingly high percentage of survey respondents in the 31 Division catchment area reported feeling that police “abuse power” and are “not trustworthy.” One in four reported feeling unsafe when police are present. The same amount said they would be less likely to contact police if they happen to witness a crime in the future.

These are the consequences of police organizations breaching community trust. We don’t even have to look south of the border for examples. Most Torontonians don’t approve of carding. Members of the public have packed police services board meetings, unanimously demanding an end to racial profiling practices. Torontonians marched through the streets late last year, demanding police accountability. The police services board and the mayor himself have been critical of how police practices have damaged community trust. It just isn’t possible to disregard this level of public outcry with the language of “safety” anymore. And it’s not enough for TPS brass to call a temporary halt to “carding” without any concrete plan to address the underlying issue of racial discrimination that made carding such a controversial topic in the first place.

If TPS’ leadership really does believe in building safer communities, then they need to demonstrate their commitment. That can’t happen until the police finally put an end not only to carding, but to the racial profiling carding enables.