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Toronto Tory’s flip on carding doesn’t inspire confidence from police chief or public

Toronto Mayor John Tory is smart, decent, honourable and conscientious – excellent qualities in any leader. The doubt that has always hovered over him doesn't concern his integrity, sincerity or commitment. It concerns his judgment.

Does he have the steady hand it takes to lead a government on a sure path despite the clamour of competing voices that surrounds any leading figure in public life? Or is he a flickering flame who will sway with the latest breeze that comes through the living-room window? The way he has handled the issue of police carding has done nothing to erase those questions.

Just a couple of months ago, he stood before the media to announce that the police chief and the police board had reached a "landmark" agreement on carding – the practice of taking down and retaining information from people police stop in the street. It would continue, but with new rules and more training to ensure that it did not amount to racial profiling.

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Now he says carding is wrong and that it must end, permanently. It has "eroded public trust to a level that is clearly unacceptable." Accordingly, he will go back to the police board on June 18 and seek to kill it once and for all.

What has changed in the interim? A young journalist, Desmond Cole, wrote a powerful article in Toronto Life magazine describing how many times he had been stopped by police for no apparent reason. A coalition of leading citizens, many of them disturbed by that article, urged Mr. Tory to change his mind. So he did.

Fair enough, you might say. Politicians should be allowed to change their minds to fit changing facts, circumstances or public opinion. But carding has been an issue for years. Mr. Tory knew that many black community leaders wanted it ended. They have said so over and over.

The mayor says he backed the earlier deal on carding to allow time to develop new and better ways of allowing police to gather information in a bias-free manner. He says he wanted to break the stalemate between the police command and the board and set the stage for reform. But "that progress was elusive," and so after much "agonizing" and "great personal reflection," he changed his mind.

Many will congratulate the mayor for his sensitivity, so much on display in Sunday's announcement. (He seemed close to tearing up as he spoke of his ties to the black community.) Many will praise him for listening to the people and reassessing his views instead of digging in his heels just to avoid being called a flip-flopper again.

But the whole episode leaves an unsettling impression. Just a few weeks ago, the mayor essentially backed the police when they insisted not only on keeping carding but on dropping some restrictions on the practice that had been worked out through an earlier process in this drawn-out saga. Now, he essentially backs police critics who want carding ended altogether.

His new position puts him directly at odds with the new police chief, Mark Saunders, who insists that police need some form of carding to gather intelligence in crime-ridden communities. Chief Saunders has been working on new procedures that he says will allow police to ask questions and record information without stigmatizing anyone. Mr. Tory has cut him off at the knees.

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People around the mayor will start to wonder: Am I next? Can I count on what he says? Or is he the sort of leader who bases his decisions on the latest, loudest voice?

This sort of behaviour does not inspire confidence. Even those who applaud Mr. Tory for where he landed on carding should worry about how he landed there.

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