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Protesters march against carding while police look on in Toronto on Sept. 1.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Last week, the police services board in Peel Region, an area of 1.4 million people west of Toronto, asked the Peel Police to stop carding citizens. The police chief's response was a brusque "no." Something similar happened in Toronto in 2014: The police services board voted in favour of a policy that would have sharply curtailed the ability of Toronto Police officers to randomly stop innocent people and demand personal information from them, a.k.a. carding, and the then-chief of police refused to co-operate.

There is something wrong here. If police chiefs can thumb their noses at police services boards, then either the boards are for show or they badly need a clearer and wider set of powers. We choose the second option.

Every Ontario municipality with a police force also has a police services board. The boards are there to provide independent civilian governance of the police and to represent the needs, values and expectations of the community.

Unfortunately, the 1990 Police Services Act that created the boards is riddled with vague language. For example, boards are empowered to "direct the chief of police and monitor his or her performance." But as the Ontario Association of Police Services Board noted in a brief last fall, that "is neither a clear statement of responsibility and authority, nor is it robust."

And that vague clause empowering the boards is followed by another that says boards "shall not direct the chief of police with respect to specific operational decisions or the day-to-day operation…." One section of the law tells boards they must "direct the chief of police," while another says that on "specific operational decisions," they can't. This isn't clear at all.

This confusion over who exactly is in charge has tilted power in favour of police chiefs. Peel Region's police services board reportedly received legal advice that it had no power to order the police chief to stop carding – it could only recommend that she do so. She took their recommendation and shelved it.

Police data show that officers have been many times more likely to card black people than white people in both Peel and Toronto, which is why the police services boards rightfully took an interest. What's at issue here, however, is bigger than carding. It's a question of whether and to what degree police should be subject to civilian oversight.

The government of Ontario says it plans to update the Police Services Act with a view toward giving boards clearer and stronger mandates. Good. The current rules aren't working.

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