Good intentions in public life are to be welcomed, but they can often be deceiving.
Sometimes the good intention is as far as it gets.
That seems to be how the Toronto Police Services Board has been acting. Lots of good intentions, but not much action.
A year ago—April 5, 2012, to be exact—that board unanimously passed a motion requiring police to give someone they stopped on the street a copy of the information they demanded. These interventions, called “street checks” by police, and “carding” by most everyone else, occurs to racialized youth in Toronto about 200,000 times a year and is highly controversial.
Many argue that the practise is racial profiling since black youth are stopped far more often than others; lawyers think it offends the Charter of Rights and Freedom. The information gathered is very personal—including the names of your parents, and whether they are divorced or separated—and it also records who you were with at the time the police stopped you. Youth who have refused to answer police questions have been assaulted by police and arrested.
So when the board indicated it wanted persons stopped to get a record of the stop and of the information the police were gathering, it looked as though the board was getting serious about reviewing this police practise. At least that was what seemed to be the Board’s intention.
Except here we are a year later and nothing has changed. The board since has addressed the carding issue on four other occasions, each time going a bit further to say it would control carding, even asking for reports from lawyers on legalities, but there has been not one iota of change by the police in the way carding occurs.
The board hasn’t delivered on its intentions, and every time Chief Bill Blair has asked for more time to report on the matter, the board has deferred to him.
It is the same on clearance letters. I’ve reported in this column that students who need clearance letters for their studies to become social workers and nurses are required to get letters form police stating they haven’t been convicted of a crime. As many students have learned, the police have voluminous records on many of them, recounting times when boyfriends were arrested, or when they were mistakenly accused of something by police. Police use this information to deny clearance letters even though students have never been convicted of a crime.
The board considered this matter six months ago when the Canadian Civil Liberties Association reported that police had no right to interfere this way with law-abiding citizens. The board established a subcommittee to report on changing policy to stop this practise.
But nothing more has happened. We have the intention, but no action. Just last week I had to write police officials for a nursing student at George Brown College who was denied a clearance letter: 12 years ago she had been called into a police station because of something said by a friend, an allegation that was withdrawn two days later. Charges were withdrawn when the matter got to court, but the charge was not withdrawn from the police file.
It’s the same on reducing strip searches. The Supreme Court of Canada says strip searches are degrading and humiliating and should happen only “rarely.” Toronto police strip search 60% of those they arrest.
The Toronto Police Board has considered this matter at least once a year for the past five or six years, but never gets around to doing anything. It expresses the intention to change things, then does nothing.
Carding, clearance letters and strip searches are police practises which clearly need to be rethought.
The Toronto Police Services Board—which includes city councillors Michael Thompson, Frances Nunziata and Mike DelGrande—has said so. It would better serve Torontonians if that board takes the action it has said it intends to take and make better policy for our police officers to follow.
John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.