A Hamilton officer has been found not guilty of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for a street check on a black city councillor – a divisive ruling that drew applause from law enforcement and ire from community activists.
Constable Andrew Pfeifer had been charged with discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for performing an “arbitrary or unjustified” street check against city councillor Matthew Green exactly two years ago Thursday.
In his decision Thursday, hearing officer Terence Kelly ruled that the stop was not arbitrary and that the officer acted as one would expect.
It had been a windy day and Mr. Green was seeking shelter under an overpass, kitty corner from the bus stop where he’d been waiting, when Constable Pfeifer rolled up to him in his cruiser Aug. 26, 2016, and began asking questions about where he lived and why he was there.
Mr. Green – a vocal anti-carding advocate – said he’d felt psychologically detained. He alleged the tone of the conversation changed when the officer realized he was speaking to a city councillor. At that point, he said, the officer asked if he was okay. And then he left.
It was a brief but critical exchange – and one that has been thoroughly dissected over the course of a drawn-out disciplinary hearing, believed to be the first in Ontario history into the controversial practice of carding.
The officer, a 10-year veteran of the service, argued he’d stopped that morning because he was concerned for Mr. Green’s well-being. Mr. Green said he was targeted because he is black.
“I find [Mr. Green’s] explanation to be beyond belief,” Mr. Kelly wrote in his decision, noting that the councilor seemed resentful of questions put to him and was prone to giving speeches rather than answers.
“There has been no evidence placed before this Tribunal that would indicate Matthew Green was stopped because of race.”
Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt said in a statement that the decision “speaks for itself.”
Mr. Green said he was not surprised by the decision, and that the case had become unfairly politicized because of his role as a city councillor.
“He really did make it about me. At the end of the day, this is supposed to be a fair and open, unbiased process,” he said Thursday. “It really demonstrates to me that the thin blue line is actually quite thick.”
He questioned the impartiality of a former deputy police chief – Mr. Kelly – who has no training or expertise in the “nuances of human rights.”
“I think it reaffirms what the communities have been saying for quite some time: that there’s a drastic need for an overhaul of police oversight, and that the Police Services Act hearing process presents a reasonable assertion of bias from the get-go,” Mr. Green said.
“We can’t leave the police to police the police.”
The Safer Ontario Act legislation, passed last month, proposes sweeping changes to police oversight in the province, including addressing the potential for conflicts of interest in investigations and disciplinary hearings – a recommendation that was made by Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch in his police oversight review last year.
Mr. Green said he had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal, and plans to reactivate that file now that this process has been completed.
An independent review is under way by Justice Tulloch into whether the practice of street checks should be banned altogether in Ontario. It seeks to answer the questions: Are they a necessary investigative tool for police? Or are they an infringement on the human rights of racialized people, who continue to be disproportionately stopped and questioned?
That review is set to be published next year. In the meantime, Mr. Green is concerned about the precedent his case sets.
“It’s case law in a bad way,” he said.
Evelyn Myrie, president of Hamilton’s Afro Canadian Caribbean Association, said outside the hearing Thursday that the decision will inevitably lead to a “further distrust” in police for the black community.
Clint Twolan, president of the Hamilton Police Association, said he was “relieved” and “not surprised” by the decision.