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A Toronto Police badge is seen in this file photo from the Toronto Police College Graduation Ceremony in Toronto, on Wednesday May 14, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

As the province launches a round of public consultation on police carding, Ontario's largest police association is stepping up its defence of the controversial practice with a poll suggesting 40 per cent of Ontarians support carding when provided with highly selective examples of the procedure.

In an online survey of 1,350 people conducted for the Police Association of Ontario (PAO) by ResearchEtc. last month, 36 per cent of respondents said they opposed carding, a colloquial term for the police practice of stopping, questioning and collecting information from residents without arresting them. Another 24 per cent stated they supported the measure, with a remaining 40 per cent falling into the "neutral/don't know" category.

Those percentages changed when respondents were informed that a street check – another term for carding – was involved in capturing Russell Williams, the former commander of CFB Trenton currently serving two life sentences for first-degree murder. Opposition to the practice dropped to 18 per cent while support increased to 40 per cent.

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"All the publicity around this has cast a shadow of doubt on our members," said association president Bruce Chapman. "We believe the public supports the police and this verifies it."

But the Williams example is a far cry from the repeated stopping and interrogating of young black men in Toronto that has stoked calls to rescind carding entirely, which speaks to the troublesome broadness of the term. Police netted Mr. Williams at a road block set up specifically to find one of the women he'd killed. In Toronto, critics claim street checks are rarely related to specific, ongoing crimes. Of 1.1 million carding entries filed from 2009 to 2011, the most common justification was "general investigation" – given in one-third of all stoppages, according to a Toronto Police report.

"This survey amounts to a lot of propaganda and distortion of facts," said Knia Singh, a law student who said he has been carded by police 10 times and launched a constitutional challenge of carding in June. "The example the association gives is not carding as the African-American community or First Nation community know it. Members of these communities are being stopped when they are standing around minding their own business."

A more partial questionnaire, he said, would have asked respondents how they feel about baseless street checks, a procedure Mr. Singh contends is a violation of Section 9 of the Charter guaranteeing against arbitrary detainment.

In a press release, the PAO, which does not represent Toronto Police Service members, raised several other examples of street checks leading to high-profile arrests. When the body of nine-year-old Cecilia Zhang was discovered by the Credit River in 2003, Peel Regional police were able to track her killer based on a street check that placed him at the same riverside spot a month earlier.

For the PAO, the timing of the survey is strategic. On Friday, the province is launching the public consultation portion of its effort to review and regulate street checks with a 4 p.m. town hall at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"Elected municipal officials need to know they don't have a clear mandate on the issue," said Mr. Chapman. "They need to see the facts in true reality."

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