Police Service Board decision on ‘carding’ stuns activists
Monitor the controversial police practice of stopping citizens on the street, particularly minority youth, and “carding” them. Make officers give a copy of the gathered information to those they stop. Open police data for review by the city’s auditor general.
That’s what the Toronto Police Services Board is ordering, stunning even the activists who fought for more oversight of carding, which sees hundreds of thousands of people stopped, questioned and documented each year.
The Toronto board’s decision, made earlier this month, is “pretty amazing,” says former mayor John Sewell, a member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, a group of concerned citizens who led the drumbeat for change.
Toronto police defend the practice as good police work in high crime areas. But a Star investigation found that police stop and document minorities at much higher rates across the city. And only a small percentage of the people in their massive electronic database have been arrested or charged in Toronto in the past decade.
The practice is also a front-page debate in New York and London.
Police stops have been under scrutiny in all three cities. But the type of oversight that may limit the practice can only be found here, thanks to the ruling.
The motions that passed included a request that police chief Bill Blair report carding statistics every three months, as well as monitor and address discriminatory practices.
In addition, officers will be required to give copies of the document card — stating the reason for the stop — to each individual.
The board also unanimously approved chair Alok Mukherjee’s call for the city’s auditor general to conduct an independent review of the race-based statistics kept by police, who record skin colour — black, brown, white or “other” — each time they stop and document a resident. The review would create a benchmark to judge the effectiveness of carding.
The service, and the police board that oversees it, haven’t always been as receptive to the suggestion that some police practices may target minorities.
In 2003, Toronto Police Association launched an unsuccessful $2.7-billion class-action libel suit against the Star after it published data that suggested a pattern of racial profiling.
The data showed blacks were more likely than whites to be detained and held for a bail hearing on a charge of simple drug possession. And that more were ticketed for offences that would only come to light following a traffic stop. Civil libertarians and criminologists said it was a pattern of racial profiling, whether conscious or not.
In the Star’s latest analysis, blacks were more likely than whites to be stopped and documented in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones. The ratios for black youth were even higher.
So, as Sewell sat in the darkened police board room earlier this month along with a chorus of groups — the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Black Action Defence Committee — all calling for an investigation into carding, he still couldn’t believe much was going to happen.
The board vice-chair, Councillor Michael Thompson, said afterward that many people in the room felt the same way, telling him later, “Oh my God. You guys actually did something. We didn’t think anything was going to happen.”
But the councillor said it was time to draw a line in the sand. “I read the (Star) series years ago. And I read the series again,” he said, referring to “Known to police”, which ran in March. “I know 10 years ago how controversial it was.”
“At the end of the day the police board is there to act on behalf of the citizens. And to implement measures to help make sure policing is safe for everyone,” said Thompson. Simply “referring the matter back to the auditor general with a report wasn’t sufficient.”
Many of the groups at the board meeting didn’t need the Star series to alert them to a frustrating imbalance between minority youth and police. They included front-line youth workers who had heard the stories before.
“Sadly, the results described in the Toronto Star series come as no surprise,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is facilitating a project on youth rights and policing.
Sewell’s recommendations were also supported by the provincial advocate Irwin Elman, who wrote in an email that young people have “highlighted the need for better relationships with community members, including Toronto police” since he took office in 2008.
Chief Blair has never defended racial profiling, calling it “abhorrent.” But he has supported carding, stressing that police target violent-crime areas of the city and that it has worked to reduce crime.
New York police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has also called his force’s “stop and frisk” practice an “important policing tool intended to reduce the violence that has victimized blacks and Hispanics,” according to a New York Times article in March. Statistics show 96 per cent of the city’s shooting victims and 90 per cent of murder victims in 2011 were minorities.
Police continue to “stop and search” there in record numbers, despite legislative changes made two years ago, when anger against the practice boiled over.
“People were pretty outraged that hundreds of thousands of innocent people were all of sudden in a police department database,” says Darius Charney, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has monitored the police data for nine years.
Police are now prohibited from maintaining an electronic file of names unless the stop ends in an arrest. But Charney says police interpreted the legislation as a limit only to maintaining electronic files and police still fill out the forms and keep paper copies. “Somewhere in the police department are a huge stack of handwritten forms,” he says.
Despite the legislation, statistics show police stopped nearly 700,000 people in 2011, 85 per cent of whom were black or Hispanic. Only 1 per cent of the stops led to recovery of a weapon and only one in 10 to an arrest or summons.
Charney’s non-profit organization is part of a class-action lawsuit against the police department, alleging the stop and frisk practice violates the U.S. Constitution’s fourth amendment, which prohibits search and seizure.
New York senators and city councillors, who say they’ve been stereotyped by police, are also trying to bring in legislation that would limit the practice.
In England, police “stop and search” powers used to uncover weapons or crime are also “hugely disproportionate. And yet also hugely ineffective,” says Rebekah Delsol, a member of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which studies ethnic profiling worldwide.
A leaked Scotland Yard memo made news when it revealed that police thought a federal “stop and search” power that disproportionately targets blacks could be toppled by a court challenge.
Section 60, as it’s called, allows police to intensively search areas in response to knife crimes.
But “nationally, black people are more than 30 times likely to be stopped under Section 60 powers and Asian people are seven times more likely to be stopped,” says Delsol. “Only 2 per cent of those stops actually lead to an arrest. And it’s something like 0.5 of those for possession of a weapon, which is the ostensible reason for the power in the first place.”
Activists are calling for the kind of oversight that was introduced in Toronto.
“There needs to be much tighter internal management that actually takes action on officer practice and does something about the culture of institutional racism,” says Delsol, whose organization is part of a court challenge to the Section 60 powers.
“And on the other side, I think there’s a lot of work to be done on using the statistics in a very clever way and working with communities so that they can really monitor the police and hold them to account.”