Indigenous and black people are more likely to be considered suspicious by Vancouver police than people of other races. That’s the takeaway from data released by the city’s police department about how it conducts street checks, the practice of stopping someone to gather information even though they aren’t suspected of a specific crime.
As reported in The Globe and Mail, Indigenous people make up 16 per cent of those stopped and asked for their identification without cause in the city, though they’re only 2 per cent of the population. The 1 per cent of its residents who are black make up 5 per cent of those street checked by police.
These stats are dismal – and the trend is repeated across the country. Also known as “carding,” street checks are practised by police forces from coast to coast, and are a regular point of contention.
That’s mainly because every time someone digs into the data, it turns out that racialized people are more likely to be stopped than white people, meaning more likely to have their identification noted and recorded. This makes them (in Toronto cop parlance) more likely to be “known to police,” despite not actually being involved with a crime.
Specifics do differ from city to city – while black and Indigenous people are most often targeted, those who police consider “brown” show up in the stats for Toronto. Some places like to pick on “Arabs” or “West Asians,” which I think means Muslims who look like the bad guys in Aladdin.
But while individual shades may not match up exactly, the same picture can be seen from Medicine Hat to Ottawa to Halifax. When tasked with trying to keep communities safe, police forces across the country target those who aren’t white.
“I feel a little demoralized,” said Bashir Mohamed, a member of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Edmonton, about learning Vancouver’s carding data. “It makes me wonder if anything will actually be done there. At the end of the day, we weren’t able to do much here.”
Last June, BLM Edmonton released that city’s data on street checks, after obtaining it through a Freedom of Information request. Mr. Mohamed said he was gratified to have proof of his suspicions that his black friends were stopped more often than their white acquaintances.
He was also shocked at one particular statistic: that Indigenous women in Edmonton were almost 10 times more likely to be stopped and to have their identification recorded than anyone else. BLM Edmonton shared the information with the Institute for Advancement of Aboriginal Women and Stolen Sisters, which focus on Indigenous women’s issues.
The three groups put together a number of policy suggestions, some of which echo rules put into place in Ontario around the practice of carding. Since January, 2017, officers in that province must inform people that they have a right not to talk to police or to produce identification unless they’re being arrested or detained.
This is far from perfect – Ontario’s data excludes traffic stops, a rather big exception – but informing people of their rights is a basic place to start.
Mr. Mohamed says he was promised action in person by Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley last fall. Edmonton’s police commission also vowed to review its carding practices and put together a research group to do so in December. Advocacy groups were told to expect the next steps by early 2018, but halfway through the year, nothing has happened yet.
And neither Edmonton, Ontario, nor any other jurisdiction has promised to change how it stores carding data, which is usually kept indefinitely. While there have been calls in some cities to destroy the information entirely, Mr. Mohamed is willing to let it be used by researchers and academics. He just wants it removed from databases meant to list criminals.
After all, police haven’t shown that they need it. Even as forces across Canada insist that personal information about innocent-until-proven-guilty citizens is useful, none have released data to show how street checks help reduce crime. Yet, despite this lack of proof, the constant, unjustified surveillance continues.
This country famously resists being tied together by a common string, with regular hand-wringing about whether anyone cares about maple syrup or hockey anymore. It’s time to claim our actual national past-time – making sure Indigenous, black and other racialized people know they’re being watched with suspicion.