Ontario will bring in regulations to govern police carding in cities across the province, in a bid to allay criticisms that the controversial practice violates privacy and leads to racial profiling.
Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi will announce on Tuesday that the government is forming a working group to consult with police and civil-liberties groups on what the regulations should be, sources with knowledge of the plan told The Globe and Mail.
An outright ban on carding is unlikely, the sources said. The idea is to develop regulations that address human-rights concerns and ensure there is no racial bias in carding while still allowing police to use the practice. The plan is to bring in binding rules that police must obey, as opposed to mere guidelines.
Carding – also known by several other names, including "street checks" – is the police practice of stopping people who are not suspected of a crime, checking their identification and adding their names and other personal information to a police database.
Carding is common practice in police forces across Ontario and the country, and has been particularly contentious in Toronto.
Some possible reforms include setting a limit on how long police are allowed to keep personal information; having police issue a "receipt" to people they card, which would spell out for them all the information collected; and obliging police to tell people they are about to card that the interaction is voluntary and they can walk away without giving up any information.
The regulations could also spell out more specific circumstances in which carding can be undertaken. Right now, Toronto police carding policy states only that officers need a "valid public safety purpose" to card residents, a rationale that rights groups have said is far too vague.
Critics argue carding is a violation of privacy, in which police gather information on innocent people that can later show up during police checks or be used by police to unfairly target people. Data gathered by the Toronto Star show that officers disproportionately card black men.
The Ontario government's move could help resolve the battles over carding between police forces and community organizations by imposing a single, uniform standard across the province.
It could also get Premier Kathleen Wynne's governing Liberals out of a tight spot. The opposition NDP, which competes for left-of-centre voters with the Liberals, particularly in Toronto, has already come out against carding. The New Democrat's deputy leader, Jagmeet Singh, is planning to introduce legislation to stop the practice later this year.
Earlier this month, Ms. Wynne refused to take a position on the subject. She said that police practices must "conform to all of the Ontario rights and freedoms," but when asked if carding violated freedoms, she said, "We're not weighing in at this point."
Toronto Mayor John Tory has vowed to forward a proposal to end carding at Thursday's meeting of the police services board, setting the stage for a standoff with Chief Mark Saunders, who supports carding. The province's move could avert that confrontation, but Mr. Tory could also opt to push ahead with his proposal, which goes further than the province's.
The issue has been on the minds of many Ontario chiefs as they meet in Mississauga this week for the annual Ontario Association of Police Chiefs conference. Policing leaders from across the province have been watching the situation in Toronto in anticipation of fallout. Deferring to a provincial process would alleviate some of that pressure.
"Chiefs in Ontario are willing and want to work with ministry on a framework for street checks," Ottawa Police Service Chief Charles Bordeleau said from the conference. "The chiefs have been talking about that. We're open and want to work on this."
Despite it being a ubiquitous practice, there is no uniform policy guiding how the interactions are conducted and what is done with the resulting information. As a result, a patchwork approach of wildly varying practices has emerged across province.
Between 2009 and 2011, for example, Toronto Police Services entered 1.1 million names into its central carding database. In Ottawa, by contrast, just 6,000 people were carded last year.
"What is a street check, how do we use it, how do we define the use – these are key questions," said Chief Bordeleau. "We recognize there's a balance here and that we need to respect people's rights."
Community groups have opposed carding for years, while both former chief Bill Blair, now a federal Liberal candidate, and his successor, Chief Saunders, have resisted calls for serious reforms.
The issue blew up this spring, after Chief Saunders came down on the side of the practice and a Toronto Life cover story by journalist Desmond Cole, excoriating carding and detailing Mr. Cole's own experience of getting stopped by police more than 50 different times, helped whip up public opposition. Several prominent Torontonians such as former mayors David Crombie and Barbara Hall spoke out publicly against the practice. The public outcry prompted Mr. Tory to come out against carding at a press conference two weeks ago.
In suburban Peel Region, the police board voted last week to review the practice at the behest of Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey.