The Ontario government released a report on the issue of police carding this week, one that raises a big question: Why are we still talking about this?
It is remarkable that a government in 2018 is seeking recommendations on a police practice that is so obviously unacceptable in a free and democratic society. Will no one in office simply state for the record that carding, as defined by the new report and lived by far too many innocent people in Ontario, is reprehensible?
The explanation may be that term “carding” isn’t always properly understood. One of the blessings of the new report from Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch is that it puts the issue in clear terms.
Justice Tulloch identifies carding as a “small subset” of street checks, a street check being any interaction where an officer asks a civilian for ID outside of a police station. Most street checks, as the report says, are the "legitimate intelligence-gathering of potentially useful information.”
Examples of valid street checks include police questioning a person found at the scene of a crime, or someone who fits the description of a wanted suspect. Every Canadian supports the idea that police can question a person where there are reasonable grounds to suspect he or she might be connected to a crime that has already been committed.
But that’s not carding. Carding is about fighting future, theoretical crimes. It occurs, the report says, when “a police officer randomly asks an individual to provide identifying information when there is no objectively suspicious activity, the individual is not suspected of any offence and there is no reason to believe that the individual has any information on any offence.”
It’s a hideous practice. In Toronto, police arbitrarily stopped thousands of adults and teenagers and demanded to know their names, their addresses and the names of their “associates.” The information was then stored in a database for future reference.
Innocent people who exercised their right not to co-operate often found themselves on the ground with a police officer’s knee across the back of their neck. In the vast majority of cases, they were members of a racial minority.
In 2011, surveillance video surfaced showing Toronto police officers carding four innocent black teenagers and punching and arresting one of them for refusing to co-operate. In another case that year, an innocent black man who refused to answer officers' questions was handcuffed, punched in the face and left lying in the cold without his jacket for 30 minutes before being let go. The courts ultimately awarded him more than $80,000 in damages.
In 2016, Ontario implemented rules obliging police to inform citizens of their right not to co-operate when carded, and to provide anyone they approach with a written record of the attempt to gather information. It also banned forces from setting carding quotas.
Justice Tulloch’s mandate was to find ways to improve the rules. His solution is the right one: end carding altogether.
He says he found no evidence of carding being a useful investigative tool, but that is almost beside the point. Even without the bias that prompted Toronto police to target young black men, and even without the fact that some officers escalated the random checks into episodes of brutality, carding by its very nature is a civil-rights violation.
No one in Canada should be arbitrarily forced to humiliate themselves by handing over their names and those of their friends and family in order to create a police database of personal information to be used in the theoretical investigation of crimes that have yet to be committed.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, led by Premier Doug Ford, is decidedly police-friendly. It has already shelved a new law that vastly increased civilian oversight of the police – a law based on a previous report by Justice Tulloch, and which police unions opposed.
His new report on carding has been met with a cool reception. Ontario Correctional Services Minister Sylvia Jones said this week the government will look at its findings, but made no promise to ban carding.
“Our new police legislation will reflect a simple principle," was all she said: "Racism and discrimination have no place in policing.”
She should add “unconstitutional arbitrary police stops” to her list.