Blair bucks civilian rule to continue unfair carding

john1John Sewell –

It’s not clear exactly who is in charge of how the Toronto Police Service delivers policing. Legislation says it is the Toronto Police Services Board which has that responsibility, but recent practise shows that the board is merely a bystander and Police Chief Bill Blair has the final word, effectively outflanking civilian control.

This distinction became most clear on the incendiary issue of carding, where young men are stopped and questioned—and often searched—by police for doing nothing more than walking along minding their own business. Black youth are particularly singled out by police for carding and rightfully feel aggrieved by the practise and want it stopped. It is not pleasant to be considered and treated by the police like a criminal.

Until the middle of 2013, about 300,000 individuals were carded by Toronto police every year. (Fewer than 50 000 people are arrested and charged with a crime each year in Toronto.) In mid-2013 the board made it clear that the practise of carding would be substantially curtailed.

It was at that time that senior police officers devised their own new approach to carding called PACER, which tried to make the practise more friendly, as though it was nothing but a little community chat that was taking place. Senior officers said they had three legal opinions which concluded that carding was a practise entirely justified by the Charter of Rights and Freedom. But when challenged, the police refused to make these legal opinions public. Many lawyers believe carding offends the Charter and indeed several judges have been very critical of the practise.

Because of the uproar among the black community with the PACER approach, the board retained lawyer Frank Addario to devise a better procedure. Addario reported in early 2014 that police do not have the right to stop, detain and question individuals who are not suspected of engaging in criminal activity. He recommended a policy that police had to tell people they have the right to walk away at any time and refuse to answer any questions, and that the police are required to provide a written receipt to those stopped with their name and badge number and the reason for the stop. That new policy was adopted by the board in April 2014 and Chief Blair was requested to report in two months on how this new policy would be operationalized.

The board also authorized a study to be undertaken in 31 Division (the Jane-Finch area) in August to see how the world was reacting to the new policy.

The study was completed and released in October and it showed that 85% of those stopped never received a receipt, that many stopped did not feel they could walk away from the police, and that two-thirds of those stopped felt they were talked to disrespectfully by the police. For many community leaders, the study was a fair accounting of how people in Jane-Finch were treated by police. Police attacked the study as unfair.

The matter was fully debated at the Toronto Police Services Board on Dec. 15. It was learned that Chief Blair has never reported on how the April board policy would be implemented, so the rank and file have never received instructions from the chief to follow the new policy. It was also learned from Tony Rivieri, the commander of 31 Division, that his officers received training during the summer on the PACER procedures, the ones that the board had rejected. It was abundantly clear that on this issue the instructions of the board were being ignored and the old practise of carding was continuing.

There were almost two dozen speakers at the Dec. 15 meeting of the board. Some speakers, like Barbara Hall, chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, asked that carding be stopped until the lines of command are sorted out. Others, like the Law Union of Ontario and various members of the black community, asked that carding be stopped, period, and that police only stop those believed to be engaged in criminal activity.

johnThe Board decided (again) to ask the chief to report in mid-February. Mayor John Tory, attending his first Police Board meeting, talked about the need for a compromise, although it is hard to know what that might be, since carding is about racial discrimination and civilian control of the police force.

A happy new year for many racialized Torontonians will include the end of carding.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.