Ask the Torontonians most affected by it to define “carding” and they’ll tell you it’s a new name for a decades-old problem: random police checks that target young African-Canadian men.
The practice was once called “intervention” and before that “street checks.” The police now label it community “engagement.” The name everyone else tends to use—carding—is a reference to the contact cards police have been using for about 10 years to collect information about those who are stopped and questioned.
According to a series of investigative reports by the Toronto Star, people stopped for the sake of engagement between 2008 and 2013 were more likely to be African-Canadian than white and the vast majority of encounters did not involve an arrest or charges. Nevertheless, details about each individual—including one’s name, age, perceived skin colour, estimated height, and weight, and often the names of one’s friends—were recorded and entered into a massive database. The Star reporters found that city police filled out at least 2.1 million contact cards involving 1.2 million people between 2008 and 2013.
While police have called the contact card database “an incredibly effective tool,” critics charge that the practice puts innocent people at risk. Once in the system, a person will be seen as known to police any time his or her name is checked in future; even when there’s been no crime or arrest, a person’s file expands each time he or she is carded.
“We are not aware of a single example offered by the police of a case being solved due the carding database or the practice,” lawyer Vilko Zbogar, reached through Toronto’s Human Rights Legal Support Center, tells Yahoo! “The police service has never presented any empirical evidence to the Board that shows that carding has made communities safer, even though advocacy groups have repeatedly asked for such evidence.”
Those calling for an end to the practice see no distinction between carding and racial profiling, a position that seems to be supported by the Toronto Star’s statistical analysis. According to results from a Freedom of Information request made by the paper: “While blacks make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they accounted for 25 per cent of the cards filled out between 2008 and mid-2011. In each of the city’s 72 patrol zones, blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped and carded. The likelihood increases in areas that are predominantly white.”
Knia Singh, a second-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School who has become a prominent voice in the carding debate says the role that race plays is obvious: “There is no difference at all between carding and profiling. What we keep calling carding is the documentation of information to create this database, but the real problem for African-Canadians is the initial stop, which is racial profiling. When you’re being stopped based on no other reason except your skin colour, that’s arbitrary detention.”
Carding usually begins with police officers approaching someone—on a sidewalk, in a park, outside a corner shop— and striking up a conversation, perhaps asking a young man or a group of men what they’re doing. The officers soon ask for identification, which is not something Canadians are required to carry, except when driving. Not everyone is aware of this.
“What we’re saying is when you surround black kids with five or six police officers and ask the kids for their details, they are psychologically detained at that point. That is against the Charter of Rights,” says Cutty Duncan, an organizer with the Campaign to Stop Police ‘Carding’ Now!
It’s still unclear whether carding is legal, as the police have claimed it is. What is clear is that an individual has the right to walk away if he or she is questioned and not offered a legitimate reason for the police interest. (And even if someone is being investigated, he or she has the right to counsel.) But Duncan and others argue that even those who are aware of these rights may be too scared to speak up. They may not want their attitude to be noted on a contact card as bad or aggressive because it could affect the way police treat them the next time they’re stopped. At worst, they may feel their safety is in danger.
“Peers who are like me know this is the norm here, but people who aren’t like me—who aren’t African-Canadian or dark-skinned— are surprised it’s happening,” says Singh.
Rules about carding were briefly amended in 2014 to make it necessary for police to both inform people of their rights and issue a receipt for the individual to keep, something that would contain the officer’s name and badge number. The database was also supposed to be purged of any data not relevant to any investigation. Those rules were never fully implemented, and last month a new policy was announced. It said police must tell people why they are being stopped if they ask, and inform them that they are free to walk away. Police will also be required to give citizens business cards instead of receipts. Activist groups are frustrated with the setback and have vowed to push back.
“I would like to think that the majority of officers are good,” says Singh, “but the way this whole thing plays out is an us-against them-type of thing. It’s an abuse of power.”
“What is the purpose of collecting information about innocent civilians?” he adds. “That violates everything this country is supposed to stand for and everything people fought for in World War I and World War II. Right now, those freedoms only apply to select few.”