The most uncomfortable and necessary conversation in Toronto

When the province held a public consultation on carding, it kind of blew up in their faces. And that's a good thing.


Some of this city’s most uncomfortable and necessary conversations took place at the Toronto Reference Library on Tuesday night, September 1, at a public consultation meeting on the police practice of “street checks” (i.e., carding).

At the last of five sessions held across the province by the Ministry of Community Safety ahead of its forthcoming effort to regulate police stops, participants wasted no time blowing open the prescribed parameters for discussion. Survey questions that presupposed the continuation of carding were excoriated, and officials were told plainly and directly that the very idea of holding a consultation on people’s rights is appalling: is there another group whose right to go about their day without police harassment would be subject to public input?

The evening climaxed with activist and journalist Desmond Cole ­going head-to-head with police chief Mark Saunders, the only person in the room who seemed to find the status quo acceptable.

Saunders had sat down at a table with Councillor Michael Thompson and MPP Bas Balkissoon. Also sitting there, however, was a man named Cecil Peter, who took full advantage of the close encounter with the chief to express his loud frustration with both carding and the recent police killing of Andrew Loku, whom officers shot to death on July 5 within seconds of first encountering him. When reporters thrust mics toward Saunders for a response, the meeting’s facilitator asked that the impromptu scrum be conducted in an adjacent room, so the noise wouldn’t unduly distract the consultation’s regular participants.

The chief and the media obliged, and Saunders continued giving his unsatisfactory demi-answers just outside the Appel Salon’s doors. Upon deciding he’d had enough, he called an end to the questions and turned to go back to the main room, at which point Cole piped up: “Chief Saunders, since you keep saying that carding is an effective tool, when are you gonna provide the evidence?”

Saunders responded by inviting Cole to have a conversation with him at his table.

Cole took him up on the offer, and before a row of cameras, he pressed Saunders to offer (non-anecdotal) evidence or data to support his repeated assertion that carding serves a useful public safety purpose. The meeting facilitator, desperately trying to keep the event under streamlined control, was not altogether happy about this.

Below is a complete transcript of their exchange.

Following that are edited and condensed transcripts of some of the strongest speeches given during the open-mic portion of the evening, which express the issues more clearly and powerfully than I ever could.

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Cole: Yourself and [Toronto Police Association president] Mike McCormack keep repeating in the media that carding keeps people safe — that when it’s done properly, it keeps people safe. Now, we’ve asked you guys, over and over again, just to show us. ‘Cause you guys have a database full of millions of contacts, and I’m sure that you know how often those contacts have led to an arrest, have led to a weapon being found, have led to contraband being found. So we just want to know. We can’t take your word for it that this practice keeps people safe, if you won’t actually show us the data. So when are you gonna show us the data to back up that claim?

Saunders: Desmond, if you look at some of the court decisions that have occurred, when you look at the evidence that has been presented, you will see clearly that there are many instances when people have been stopped and investigated that’s added value to investigations. As a Homicide officer for eight and a half years, running Homicide for a year, I can tell you there are numerous times that I utilized that information to lead me to successful arrests.

Cole: I don’t doubt that, but you would agree with me—

Saunders: It’s not whether you doubt it or not. It’s a fact.

Cole: Okay. But you would agree with me that when you stop people and it doesn’t lead to that, that that’s a problem, right?

Saunders: If it’s random or arbitrary, it’s not good.

Cole: So we just want to know the percentages, sir. If you’re saying that it’s beneficial and it helps keep people safe and prevents crime, we just wanna know how often. Because if you have to stop 50 of us to get one of those cases that you’re talking about, I actually think that that’s a violation of all of our rights. I think that that’s disproportionate to the amount of power that you guys should have as police. So you can tell me that you have court cases, and I believe that there are cases where you’ve used carding. I just want to know how many. Because if it’s one in 100, if it’s one in 1000, if it’s one in 10,000, that is too much overstep on the police’s part. So we just want to see the numbers.

Meeting facilitator (stepping in): Desmond, please, can we take it to the back room over there, so that everybody else working can hear themselves if they’re working?

Cole: I just wanted to ask those questions in front of the chief in front of all of these folks.

Facilitator: And I have no problem with you asking the question, but I want people to be able to work.

Cole: And I don’t want to distract anybody, I just wanted to ask that.

Facilitator: Just through that door, right there, we’ve got a whole room set aside for it.

Cole: We’re not gonna leave, and I don’t want to take the chief away, and other people probably want to talk to him. I just wanted to ask that of you: It’s important for us as a community that if you say that this practice leads to public safety, how often does it lead to an arrest? How often does it lead to a charge? How often does it lead to a gun being found? How often does it lead to drugs being found? Because we believe, by the Toronto Star’s numbers, that the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t lead to anything. And that is not acceptable for the public. That’s all I’m saying. So we want to see the numbers, and then we can have a discussion about what those numbers say, but until that time, there’s nothing really more to say.

Cecil Peter (jumping in): Too many innocent people.

Another man: They got stats on the sex life of bullfrogs. But they can’t get you stats on that.

Saunders: You raise a valuable point about what we do and why we do it, and having better measures in place to articulate why it is important. That’s part of this process. That’s part of this process. That’s why they want to hear what the community has to say and why they say what they say and why they feel the way that they do feel. So that they can figure out what the right regulation is, so that we can be held accountable better with respect to our actions and what we do as law enforcement.

Cole: I just, I need to push you guys on this, because you and Mr. McCormack — and I’ve been very diligent in listening what you guys say — you’re getting really close to saying that it is the community pushing back against carding that is potentially endangering public safety by saying that we don’t want this practice.

Saunders: Well Desmond, if you—

Cole: And that’s a really, really strong thing for you guys to be saying without any evidence.

Saunders: If, you know, the first narrative of carding was defined as random, arbitrary stopping of people — that is stopped. That stopped. We don’t do that anymore. That has stopped. Now we need to figure out how to move forward, how to be better, how to understand our roles and involvements within the community better so that we can work better with the community.


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Jonathan Goldsbie

ELLIE ADEKUR

Listen, I just want to speak to how deeply offended I am by not only the way that this session is structured, but by the fact that any equity-seeking group has to have a public consultation to debate whether or not we deserve a fundamental human right here. That’s disgusting.

If you read these sticky notes [with participants’ responses to the consultation questions], then you will learn nothing new. We’ve been telling you to end this practice already.

We’ve spent a long time speaking [at these tables], but we’ve already been talking, we’ve already been networking, we’ve already been organizing. We need to talk to you, Mark Saunders — I am speaking to you. I am speaking to the officials and the representatives and the police in this room: we don’t want to sit around a table and write on sticky notes anymore. Because you’re not gonna read through these! You don’t listen to these sticky notes because you don’t listen to us when we shut down highways. You don’t listen to us when we are beaten and harassed. You don’t even listen to us when we die.

I want to take a second to acknowledge the groups that didn’t even come today because they recognized how ineffective this process is. They recognize what a farce this process is. We don’t need to be trying to negotiate our rights with the police, because they are not listening to you. You just look at the way this is structured, you can tell they’re not listening to you. We need to be networking and talking and organizing with each other. Because at the end of the day, that seems to be all we’ve got here.

These sticky notes are ineffective. These sessions are ineffective. And you need to hear us — you’ll hear us as organizations. Thank you.

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Jonathan Goldsbie

ANDRAY DOMISE

Writer, activist, Canadaland Commons co-host

I was actually literally shaking in anger at the fact that I had to come here tonight and have this conversation with anybody. 

My name is Andray Domise, I’m a community activist out in Rexdale, I run a charitable program, I write. I left my office job to be here tonight. And I’m so upset at the way this whole thing is structured. You actually have dozens of people up here begging to have their constitutional rights respected. What kind of country do we live in exactly? When we don’t even have the government on our side when it comes to protecting our rights. 

I’ve noticed that when we have these conversations [about police-involved deaths such as Jermaine Carby] with our chiefs of police, they simply evade responsibility by saying, “Oh, you know what, it’s up to the Special Investigations Unit.”

By the way, it took the Black Action Defence Committee years to actually get the SIU set up in the first place — and right now it’s a complete farce. It’s a joke. What is it, five per cent of police officers who have complaints lodged against them by the SIU actually have charges levied by the SIU? [pdf, p. 30]

The Ontario Ombudsman, André Marin, who used to be the director of the SIU, has said that the Attorney General’s office has completely undermined the SIU. So every time that you hear Mayor John Tory or Chief Mark Saunders defer to the SIU, just know that the organization that investigates officers is a complete joke.

And I’ve also noticed that Mark Saunders is no longer here. You know what, it’s okay, because if it was me taking that many Ls in one night, I wouldn’t be here, either.

But when you say to people that there’s no new hope for tomorrow — on the matter of our constitutional rights. When you say to people that you gotta know “who’s who in the zoo” — like I’m a goddamned caged animal. That makes you a bully and a coward. And shame on you, Mark Saunders! And shame on you to every single Toronto police officer who knows that this practice exists and supports it nonetheless.

You know, when I was 15 years old, I was on my way back from lunch at high school. I was carrying a knapsack on my back. And some police officers stopped me, they asked me questions. They wanted to know if I was carrying weed on my person. Look, I’m just 15 years old, I’m just trying to go to school. I didn’t want to talk to them. But you know what ended up happening? Me, cuffed, on the ground, while the officers dumped out the contents of my backpack. In front of my peers at school.

You know what happened a couple of weeks ago? I got a call from a Toronto police officer whose son goes to school in Peel and happened to be in the vicinity of where a fight might have happened, but he wasn’t involved in the fight. Know what happened to him when he didn’t want to talk to an officer? Slammed face down on that cruiser. His dad, that Toronto police officer, is actually considering pursuing charges against Peel police for that reason.

My final thoughts are this: there’s absolutely no reason why any of us should have to be here tonight. To any elected official who’s watching this and says nothing. To any elected official who watches this and says, “We’ll have some conversations about this.” To any elected official that has anything less to say than, “We’re going to stop street checks immediately”: you don’t deserve to be where you are.

And I’m calling on every single person and every single community: if your elected officials are not going to respect your rights, then don’t respect their office. Thank you.

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Jonathan Goldsbie

KNIA SINGH

Law student and chair of Caribana Arts Group, who’s launched a legal challenge against carding

To Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi: I think you’re making progress in this matter. But I want you to just remember this: that this is not about “reasonable suspicion.” This is about innocent people being stopped and harassed by police that leads to dire consequences. We have the Charter of Rights section 9, we have Supreme Court decisions. This is a no-brainer for the Ontario government. And you are the best person to take this to task because I see the genuine way in which you operate. But your premier, our premier, Kathleen Wynne has to step up and move forward on this and just make sure that police do not arbitrarily detain people.

This is very important that we abide by the laws of this country because if we regulate a practice that is illegal, we are going down a very slippery slope. So I commend you, Minister Naqvi, on making the forward steps, but we need you to follow through. 

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Jonathan Goldsbie

DESMOND COLE

I’m happy that this consultation is happening but sad that Toronto was not originally even on the list of cities to be consulted, when this is where this conversation about carding really began. So, you know, I guess you guys got there eventually, but I don’t know how you could have made that oversight to begin with.

I want to say just a few things, if I can briefly, about this process and about the way that you guys are framing it. 

So first of all, this preamble in your online document, it says, “Street checks done properly are a necessary and valuable tool for police in their efforts to help communities remain safe and secure.”

A “necessary and valuable tool.” That sounds really nice. Where is the data? Where is the evidence that this is a necessary tool? See, when you do that as the province of Ontario, when we call you and say that we need help with this practice, that this practice is hurting us — and then you frame the discussion by saying “but it’s a valuable practice,” where is your evidence?

I asked the chief of police, and we will keep asking. All you media here, you guys take this note down, and you ask him: Where is the data? When you stop someone, how often does it lead to an arrest? How often does it lead to a charge? How often is a weapon found? How often are drugs found? Because if 95 or 98 or 99 per cent of the time, you find nothing, the practice is illegitimate and has to stop.

Another problem I have with this document: you guys say “What is a street check?” and you provide some possible definitions. “For example, if a police officer comes across an individual apparently loitering, late at night, in an area that has been experiencing an increased number of break-ins, the officer should be able to ask that individual what they are doing there, and ask for their name and other information to identify them.” 

By putting this in your document, you’re telling us you don’t understand what the hell we are saying as a community. Do you know how many times I have been told that this exact situation applies to me? That for standing, for existing, in my own community — because, you see, when you say it like this, you’re opening it up to the definitions and prejudices of the officer. The officer sees me and says, as you guys put it here — this terrifying wording that you use — that something is “out of the ordinary.” Something seems “out of the ordinary.” Yeah, I’ve been told that a lot. That’s not my problem, that’s the police’s problem that they don’t know how to do their job without harassing a young black person. How could you guys frame it like this? That’s the exact kind of situation that we are trying to stop.

Some of these questions are patently ridiculous. “Should there be limitations on the information that the police can take?” What do you think? Why are you even asking that question? Why don’t you already know the answer?

When you ask about young people, and should there be rules around young people, we saw yesterday that the Hamilton police have been using the exact same sheet for carding as Toronto police, and there is a section on the carding sheet for young people and their information: about whether their parents are married or divorced, about whether or not they’re in school. This is what you have been empowering the police to do and then you ask us if there should be rules about youth? Why don’t you know that that’s wrong? Why don’t you know?

Minister Naqvi said that there is zero tolerance for racism, but if there is zero tolerance, why have no police been punished for discriminating against our community? You cannot say that you don’t tolerate something but then provide zero consequences. You say “zero tolerance”? There is zero consequence. And there need to start being consequences when police officers engage in this random and arbitrary behaviour.

So when you make your draft of this new regulation, I hope that if you believe, as you say, that this is a voluntary process, I hope you will tell officers that they have to tell us it’s a voluntary process. They have to inform us that it is a voluntary process and that we are free to go. Otherwise, you have not ended carding.

They have to tell us that “I am gonna give you a receipt, just like I would for a traffic ticket, so that if you don’t like the way that I interacted with you, you have a way of documenting it and following up on it.” If you don’t do that, you haven’t ended carding.

You have to take away the database that the police have already collected from cards. Some people don’t want to destroy it fully. I understand that, because maybe in a hundred years, after everybody in this room is gone, you can release all the names that you collected and make a monument to the stupidity and racism that still exists in this society. But you have to take it away from the police in the meantime. If you don’t want to destroy it, at least don’t let them keep having access to it to restigmatize me walking down the street, because it should never have been collected in the first place.

And finally, the only reasons that the police should be stopping us in this way are if we are engaged in criminal activity, if we’re expected to be about to engage in it, or if we’re the subject of an investigation. The police have so many tools already: warrants, investigative detention. They can have informal conversations. They can do all of that stuff. They do not need this practice.

And we will be watching what your regulation says to ensure that when you say you want to end this practice, you actually take the steps necessary to do it. 

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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