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Toronto Toronto Police’s carding reform is built on a good foundation

The Toronto Police Services Board meets on Thursday to discuss a new approach to carding – the police practice of collecting and storing information they garner through interactions with people who are not under arrest or detention.

That approach, announced last Friday, is already facing opposition. Critics say it doesn't do enough to protect the rights of individuals or prevent racial profiling. They deserve a thorough hearing. But let's remember the progress that has been made on this sensitive issue.

The board and the police chief, Bill Blair, were at loggerheads for months on how to reform carding. The board worried that it was souring relations with minorities, given that men of colour showed up in disproportionate numbers in carding statistics compiled in a series of articles in the Toronto Star. The chief worried that ending or severely restricting it would prevent police from gathering useful information.

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Both concerns are valid. Any city wants at all costs to avoid conflict between police and minority or disadvantaged groups. But it also wants cops to be able to get out in the city and do their job.

Chief Blair said on Friday that he doesn't want his officers just hanging around the station "waiting for a radio call to say some catastrophe's happened" then going out to put yellow tape around the scene. Instead, he wants his officers to hit the streets to make contact with the public, build trust with the community and gather information that might help solve or prevent crimes. That is the essence of community policing, now in use by many police forces around the world.

The compromise struck by the board and the chief is an attempt to come up with a policy that would let police continue to have their interactions with the public but at the same time ensure that people they encounter don't feel harassed or singled out because of their race.

To that end, police officers are to be explicitly prohibited from using "race, place of origin, age, colour, ethnic origin, gender identity or gender expression in deciding whether to initiate a community engagement" (unless such factors form part of "a specific suspect, victim or witness description.") On top of that, they will be told to weigh the value of any engagement against an "individual's right to be left alone" and to consider the issue of "psychological detention" – a person's perception that he or she has no choice but to comply with police.

Chief Blair promises that the force will train officers in how to conduct engagements with the public respectfully and within the law; that it will report to the board regularly on the engagement policy; that it will refrain from imposing carding quotas on officers; and that it will take care not to gather or keep masses of irrelevant data.

None of this will be enough for many of the activists, human-rights organizations and community groups that have besieged the board over the carding issue. They don't like the fact that officers will be able to initiate contact and gather information as long as there is a "valid public safety purpose," a pretty broad authorization. They don't like the fact that police will not be required to issue a receipt to those it contacts (instead, officers will have business cards they can hand out) or inform people whom they stop that they have the right to walk away. But the settlement announced on Friday is not a final policy, and its principles form a good foundation.

The deadlock over carding began to loosen when Mayor John Tory took office in December. He changed the composition of the board, taking a seat for himself and removing a city councillor, Michael Thompson, who had often locked horns with the chief.

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The settlement that followed was hammered out with the help of a respected mediator, former Ontario chief justice Warren Winkler. The board supports it, the chief supports it, the mayor supports it. There is no reason to suspect that they are anything but serious about following through.

The mayor, who called the agreement a "landmark," has a history of speaking out on the need to lift up the city's so-called priority neighbourhoods. He said on Friday that "we cannot live in a city where young black men, for example, feel devalued or disrespected."

Board chair Alok Mukherjee, who said the compromise "strikes the right balance," is a strong human-rights advocate who has clashed with the chief on budget matters and can hardly be called a pushover.

Chief Blair himself has worked tirelessly since the beginning of his 10 years on the job to increase the diversity of the force and improve community relations. Racial profiling, he said on Friday, is "bad policing – it's stupid to be quite honest with you." He pledged that police would treat everyone they encounter "with respect for their rights and respect for their dignity as citizens."

Chief Blair, now in his final month before retiring, spoke with passion and conviction. If the force can keep his pledge, there is reason to believe the city can put the long wrangle over carding in the rear-view mirror.

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