Toronto Police have effectively ended the practice of arbitrarily stopping people who are not involved in an investigation and collecting their identifying details – known as carding – according to a new statistical report showing the city’s officers engaged in the practice just once in 2018.
That’s a precipitous decline from a decade ago, when officers were carding hundreds of thousands of people every year, an act of mass intelligence gathering that targeted racialized communities and eroded public trust in the force.
But long-time critics of the practice say the stats likely miss other methods police are using to squeeze the same identifying information from people.
“That number is not an accurate reflection of what’s going on out there,” said social justice lawyer Knia Singh, who was carded by police 11 times before filing a constitutional challenge of the practice in 2015. “I have numerous clients saying they are being stopped and asked their name without cause.”
Toronto’s troubled history of carding, formally known as street checks, began in 1957 when officers scribbled information about possible criminals on “suspect cards” and forwarded the information to detectives. But the practice intensified in 2005, the city’s “Summer of the Gun,” when 52 people died by gunfire.
In 2006, the force established the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), teams of officers deployed to high-crime neighbourhoods with the goal of reducing violent crime. The teams soon earned a reputation for stopping and questioning young, racialized men with impunity. Between 2009 and 2011, Toronto police entered 1.1 million names in its carding database – roughly one entry for every three Torontonians.
“It was the documentation that made it so dangerous,” said University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. “People were having trouble travelling to the U.S. and obtaining employment. It was the very fact that innocent people were targeted that made it so problematic.”
In 2015, the province intervened, announcing it would regulate the practice in a bid to allay criticisms and ensure police stops were complying with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under the new regulations, released in 2016, officers would have to inform people they stopped of their right to withhold information and walk away. The new rules also obligated officers to offer a receipt to people of their interaction carrying the officer’s name and badge number.
Officers and their unions from across the province denounced the measures, saying they would prevent them from engaging with the public and cut off a valuable source of intelligence.
Toronto changed the name of street checks to “regulated interactions,” and issued new directives to officers in November, 2016.
Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said the new regulations were so confusing that many officer simply stopped engaging. “If they can’t have it explained to them in a way that they are satisfied they are trained properly, they are not going to do it,” said Mr. McCormack. “My only surprise is that there was one. I thought there’d be none by now.”
Many officers have blamed the new provincial rules for the recent uptick in gun violence throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
“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,” said then-Peel Regional Police chief Jennifer Evans last year.
A review of the new provincial regulations released by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch earlier this year found that any link between the crackdown on carding and an increase in violence was unsubstantiated.
Toronto Police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray acknowledged the number of regulated interactions has declined in recent years as the force navigated the new regulations, but said officers are still engaging with residents.
“Policing is still happening in the city," she said in an e-mail, “but we are no longer duplicating our record-keeping and we are taking more thoughtful steps during our community interactions.”