Akwasi Owusu-Bempah of Toronto is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University.
Hold your horses, Toronto. Before we give ourselves a collective pat on the back for talking about ending the practice of police carding, and praise ourselves for being such a progressive bunch, we might want to reflect on how we got here in the first place.
Indeed, the Toronto Star brought “carding” – the police practice of stopping and documenting the personal information of citizens who are not under arrest – into the open more than five years ago as part of its continuing work on race and policing in the city.
In the absence of any concrete evidence supporting the effectiveness of the practice, the Toronto Police Services Board promised to deal with the matter.
Carding has largely dominated conversations about race and policing in Toronto ever since. This is troubling because we had spent almost a decade trying to combat other forms of “racial profiling” and “biased policing” before carding ever came on the radar.
The Star’s series in 2002 reminded Canadians that racial injustice is also a problem north of the Canada-U.S. border.
The analysis of Toronto Police data showed that black people were disproportionately charged with “out-of-sight traffic violations” (offences that arise only after a stop has already taken place, suggesting ulterior motives for the initial stop), disproportionately charged with drug offences (studies repeatedly show that rates of drug use are remarkably similar across racial groups) and disproportionately held in detention before trial (think time spent in the former Don Jail).
From other research, we also know that black people are overrepresented in police use-of-force cases, including killings (at least two unarmed black men, Alexander Junior Manon and Eric Osawe, have been killed by Toronto police officers in the past four years).
Former police chief Bill Blair came into power promising to deal with these problems. He received widespread praise for admitting that racial profiling was a problem and enlisted the Ontario Human Rights Commission to help combat it.
However, we have absolutely no evidence that any meaningful progress has been made. In fact, things may have gotten worse.
Under Mr. Blair, we saw the initiation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) and an increase in “guns and gangs” sweeps, not to mention a drastic escalation in the use of carding – all tactics that overwhelmingly target black Canadians.
At the same time, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of black inmates housed in federal correctional institutions. From 2003 to 2013, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the black federal prison population grew by 80 per cent (the overall inmate population declined over this same period). The vast majority of these offenders are from Ontario and the biggest growth in the black inmate population has occurred since 2006-07. I will let you draw your own further conclusions.
Since carding became an issue, the Toronto Police Service has so effectively managed the conversation around race and policing that most members of the public, as well as politicians, have forgotten about these other problems.
There is no doubt that carding, which Mayor John Tory has vowed to end, is an important matter and needs to be eliminated. The random (and often not-so-random) stops of racialized citizens increases their chances of being charged with minor infractions, harms police community relations and cheapens our democracy.
Nevertheless, it is but one in a host of problems that ought to be dealt with.
We now have the momentum and support from a wide spectrum of society needed to make meaningful changes to the way that policing is carried out in our city. If we want to see true reform, we will keep the pressure on the Toronto Police Services Board, as well as Mr. Tory and Premier Kathleen Wynne (the province is responsible for Ontario’s Police Services Act), to see that this happens.
Such reforms might include decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana, scaling back the TAVIS initiative and gun and gangs units, and mandating the collection and release of race-based policing statistics. Such changes would foster equality and promote greater transparency.
If we decide to stop at carding, and consider ourselves satisfied with a victory on it, we will have done ourselves, and our city, a great disservice. If we are going to commend Mr. Tory, it should be for having started a process, not for having ended one.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah received his PhD in criminology from the University of Toronto, where his research focused on the policing of black males in Toronto. He previously worked for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and has sat on consultative committees at Toronto Police headquarters.
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