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When asked about the practice of carding while on a visit to Toronto, former New York police commissioner Ray Kelly said, ‘Stopping those engaging in suspicious activity is what they [police] get paid for.’

FRED R. CONRAD/NYT

When former New York police commissioner Ray Kelly touched down in Toronto to promote his memoir, he detected something familiar in the newspaper headlines he read and the queries lobbed his way during interviews.

For most of the 12-year term he spent as Gotham's top cop, Mr. Kelly's most persistent adversaries were not criminal masterminds or spandexed super-villains, but rather a knot of civil libertarians, lawyers, judges and activists who attacked "stop-and-frisk," one of his force's key crime-prevention practices, as racist and unconstitutional.

"There was an agenda driven by activist attorneys," Mr. Kelly – whose book is titled Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting its Empire City – said between bites of a turkey club at the Four Seasons last week. "But to reduce this valuable tool is a disservice to the people of New York City."

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While he knows far less about Toronto's simmering dispute over carding – the police practice of documenting interactions with members of the public for intelligence purposes – he is just as sympathetic to activists here as in New York. "It gets to the fundamental issue of what we want police officers to do to protect us," he said. "Stopping those engaging in suspicious activity is what they get paid for."

The fate of carding remains uncertain. Queen's Park has stepped in and plans to introduce a standardized policy for carding and street checks, a similar but not analogous practice used by police forces in the rest of the province, some time this fall. Draft versions of the new regulations are already being circulated among stakeholders. The process has frayed nerves among the policing community and appears destined for litigation.

"If the government does what a lot of people around Queen's Park want them to do, which is to make it impossible for us to use valuable, legal tools, there will be legal challenges," said Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. "We would rather the government pass regulations that guide police without restricting our ability."

For his part, Yasir Naqvi, Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, has not committed to banning carding and street checks outright, as many rights activists would prefer, nor is he heeding calls from police chiefs to leave the practice relatively untouched.

"If the police are engaging in a process where they are stopping someone in a random and arbitrary way, there is no cause or reason to do so," Mr. Naqvi told The Globe and Mail. "If they simply want to collect information for their database – not acceptable. We'll put an end to it."

In New York, the courts eventually intervened to reform the practice, now a three-stage process known as "investigative encounters."

Mr. Kelly's advice is to avoid his city's path. "It's a lot of verbal mumbo-jumbo," he said of the court-ordered procedure that has replaced stop-and-frisk. "They basically said they're going to suspend the old policy, complicate it and give it another name. The more you complicate something, the less likely we are to do it. The result is police officers backing off. They are being given signals not to engage. It's unrealistic and not properly protecting the citizens of New York City."

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Police chiefs in Canada warn that an overhaul of street checks could have a similar effect here. They argue that street checks are a necessary tool in their crime-fighting arsenal aimed solely at "people, vehicles or locations known or suspected of being involved in criminal activities," according to an Ottawa police handout.

But Mr. Naqvi said the police definition is at odds with the experiences of individual Ontarians he heard from at consultation sessions across the province, many of whom talked about random, discriminatory police practices. "There is a lot of anger and anxiety that exists and we saw that in many of our consultations," he said. "I'm not going to discount people's individual experience. I think that speaks volumes."

Anthony Morgan, a policy and research lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic, finds the minister's comments somewhat reassuring. "It seems the ministry recognizes that African Canadians and Canadians writ large are not going to tolerate systemic abuses of our rights," he said.

The ACLC and several other human-rights groups want the province to legislate a preamble for street checks similar to the reading of Charter rights. Officers would be required to inform civilians of the reasoning behind the stop and of their right to remain silent and walk away. Other demands from rights groups include issuing a receipt to citizens and placing strict limits on how long any information arising from the stop would be stored in a database.

"We don't want a fissure in relations with police, so we are at opposite sides of a chasm," Mr. Morgan said. "We want a healthy, trusting, reliable relationship. The current practice fundamentally undermines that. People feel humiliated. People feel violated."

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