As police services in Western Canada face pressure to end street checks, an Ontario police chief is blaming the province’s crackdown on carding for a rise in violent crime, saying it has “empowered” criminals.
In Peel Region, west of Toronto, Police Chief Jennifer Evans told local politicians on Thursday that street-check legislation, brought in by the Ontario Liberal government early last year to end arbitrary or race-based police stops, has restricted how police officers are able to interact with members of the public.
Carding is the controversial police practice of collecting information about people they stop to question. Although it has been found to disproportionately target people of colour, some police officers argue they have lost a necessary investigative tool.
“This has empowered criminals, who think officers won’t stop them, they now are more confident that they will get away with carrying guns and knives. We have seen an increase in violent crime over the past year,” Chief Evans reiterated in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
Her concerns come as police services across the Greater Toronto Area are facing a spike in shooting incidents. Doug Ford, who becomes premier on Friday, has said his Progressive Conservative government will address the problem by reinstating funding for controversial violence-suppression units.
Peel had 40 shootings in 2017, up from 38 the year before. The estimated number of bullets fired increased last year from 272 to 426. In Toronto, total shootings have already hit 200 this year.
Ontario was the first to address concerns about carding, but services across the country are now being asked to release statistics and reform their use of the common policing practice. A report released this week in Edmonton found its officers were more likely to randomly stop people who were black and Indigenous, than individuals who were white. It recommended the service monitor the use of carding, while also increasing its diversity and starting a public dialogue.
Vancouver police data show use of street checks there have also disproportionately affected people who were Indigenous or black.
Under the new Ontario regulations, police must explain to people they stop that individuals have a right not to talk with them and that their refusal to talk cannot then be used against them to compel information.
Police are also now obligated to explain their reasons for stopping someone and provide a receipt of the interaction, including the officer’s name and badge number and information on how to contact the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).
Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch will produce a report by January, 2019, into the challenges and validity of carding as a policing tool – determining whether street checks play a crucial role in modern policing, as so many officers insist they do.
Andray Domise, a critic of the practice, says Chief Evans’s comments are “sensationalism” and “fear-mongering” and will only draw a further wedge between the service and communities of colour.
He argued that, despite their defence of carding as an important investigative tool, police have never been able to prove those claims.
“If you have this trove of evidence that carding works, why aren’t you out here showing it to the community?” he asked. “Power never concedes power willingly ... I think she needs to look inward on this one before she tries to ask citizens to give up their Charter rights.”
Some experts say establishing that any change to police practices is actually behind a rise or a fall in crime is extremely hard to do. For example, after substantially reducing its use of a policy known as stop-and-frisk in 2016, New York’s police force saw violent crime rates continue to plummet despite warnings they would skyrocket.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Joe Couto, spokesperson for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s too early to know whether any links can be drawn between spiking crime rates and the street check regulations, since they were only implemented a year and a half ago.
“Whether there is a correlation or not is something Justice Tulloch is exploring – and that [research is] needed,” Mr. Couto said.
But as they await his findings, he said it is fair for Chief Evans to raise her concerns.
“I think [Chief Evans] is quite rightly just asking the question,” he said. “She’s basically expressing what she hears in her community – and what other chiefs hear in their community: Are there linkages between changes with regards to street check policies and the perceived increases in crime?
“And I think that’s a very valid concern to express … but we have to do the research. We have to examine the issues.”
According to Peel’s police service board, of the service’s 90,717 street checks between 2009 and 2014, 20 per cent involved black people, who make up just 9 per cent of the population, and 27 per cent involved white people, who make up 43 per cent of the community. (For 22 per cent, no race was documented.)
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has said that he considers carding as practised in the past “unlawful,” but that his officers still approach citizens for “intelligence gathering.”
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash declined to address the Peel chief’s comments directly on Thursday. But he stressed police are busy on enforcement, noting recent arrests and gun seizures. He added that addressing violence requires more than just police, but also social programs.
“Chief Saunders believes, and has been making the point repeatedly, that this is not solely an issue for law enforcement,” Mr. Pugash said. “The point is you cannot arrest your way out of this problem entirely.”