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Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders at police headquarters in Toronto. He insists carding can work and still respect citizens’ rights.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Can carding be done properly – that is, in a way that respects citizens' rights – and still be a valuable tool for police? This is the central conundrum of a controversial practice that the Toronto Police Service says is currently on hold but which may return in some form.

There is a growing choir of prominent voices saying the practice should never come back. On Tuesday, two former Toronto mayors, Barbara Hall and David Crombie, as well as Roy McMurtry, the former Ontario chief justice and attorney general, teamed up with other high-profile civic advocates to call for an end to carding.

"We believe that carding violates the human rights of citizens," Concerned Citizens to End Carding said in a statement. "Anger, hurt and unrest have replaced any benefits police may derive from this practice."

Police say carding is a "community engagement" technique. Officers stop random citizens who are not suspected of having committed a crime and ask them to provide personal information. The info is put into a vast database. Police say the data can link crime suspects to known gang members and help build a case.

But in carding more than one million Toronto residents, often while working toward quotas set by management, the police have disproportionately targeted young black men and other visible minorities. As well, police are known to escalate cardings into hostile situations when a person refuses to co-operate.

In May, an Ontario Superior Court justice said in a civil ruling that carding increased "the risk of hostile interactions between police and innocent members of the public." The judge awarded $27,000 to a man who was illegally detained and punched in the face twice by an officer when he showed minimal resistance to being randomly stopped.

Toronto's new chief of police, Mark Saunders, acknowledges that the practice has an ugly side. But he insists it is a useful intelligence tool when done "properly."

That doesn't add up. If carding is done properly and innocent citizens' right not to co-operate is respected, then the vast majority of people will just walk away. Little or no intelligence will be gathered – unless somehow the people approached feel some sort of compulsion to oblige, or are scared not to, which is a blatant violation of their basic rights.

Essentially, carding is of limited value if done properly, and indefensible otherwise. Chief Saunders has not yet clarified this inconsistency in a meaningful way, and pressure is growing for him to end carding altogether. He needs to either quickly explain himself, or stop the practice.

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