Off the cop check list?

While the media were hunkering down outside the mayor’s office last Monday night, November 18, the Police Services Board’s meeting on street checks in another corner of City Hall was far lonelier than it ought to have been.

A shame, really, since it’s showdown time for the civilian oversight agency. In its first major test since the G20, the board is being forced by massive pressure to make a decision on curtailing carding, the notorious police stop-and-question procedure that disproportionately targets youth of colour.

Or, rather, I think it’s being forced there have been so many moments in the past when it seemed like the board was about to do something dramatic about the issue – and then didn’t. Does the very body Justice John W. Morden tore into for failing to protect Charter Rights during the G20 finally have the stuff to actually defang the police leadership on random stops?

Here we go round the mulberry bush again. You could almost taste the frustration of deputants Monday night as they repeated Groundhog Day-style all same the submissions they’ve made in the past.

Lawyer Peter Rosenthal summed up the prevailing view. Police checks, he said, are “what happens in military occupations by military police. Police would like to have as much information on us as possible. But we don’t think our civil liberties should be sacrificed for a slight investigative advantage.”

But it seems this tiny advantage is just too delicious for the TPS to forgo, which is why its Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER), which says all the right things on ending racial profiling and officer re-training, also insists on the force’s right to question whomever, whenever, in non-specific fishing expeditions.

The report, released in October, even found three anonymous lawyers who apparently deem the practice harmonious with the Charter Of Rights, though the document boldly promises that “data collection should be purposeful.”

The stopper comes on page 7, where we learn that between 2009 and 2011, 1,104,561 people were entered into the Field Information Report database. Some documentation came from radio calls and traffic stops, but the largest reason for questioning, one-third of all incidences, was “general investigation,” a category that includes the free-floating collection of random data.

The Law Union of Ontario’s Howard Morton, speaking about law enforcers’ predilection for shortcuts, told the room that “police used to beat confessions out of people that was very helpful [for police]. Police used to enter homes without search warrants that was helpful, too. But courts have said the mere fact that something is useful for police does not justify it if it violates the law. And the practice of street checks goes way beyond what the Charter Of Rights permits.”

Board chair Alok Mukherjee, who appeared shattered when the Toronto Star recently published shocking new details on the race-based nature of street checks, issued his own report earlier this month, and it contains some steely language.

“It has been suggested,” he writes bitingly, “that restrictions on carding will have a chilling effect on policing [and that] violent crime will rise. I must strenuously reject these suggestions. Surely the Service… has the means and the ability to develop effective strategies without negatively affecting large numbers of innocent people.”

His breakthrough proposal is that Chief Bill Blair develop procedures ensuring “bona fide criteria” for the collection of contact info. In other words, there has to be a damn good reason to ask for ID, a person’s destination, etc. But what are these good reasons exactly?

Lawyer Paul Copeland opined Monday night that the only logical interpretation of Mukherjee’s formulation is that carding be used solely as a form of “investigative detention” – that is, when subjects are suspects in a crime. If this is the board chair’s intent, get ready for the mother of all oversight showdowns.

But not so fast. As Morton and Copeland pointed out, the board promised to seek legal counsel about whether street checks are acceptable under the Charter, but this hasn’t yet occurred. Deputants also reminded the board chair that Justice Morden made a big point, post-G20, of urging the board to get its own counsel and stop relying on police or city lawyers. Again, mission incomplete.

Meanwhile, there are reports that since April when the board directed officers to issue receipts to those carded, and the force became reluctant to base officers’ evaluations on the sheer quantity of stops, the number of street checks has fallen dramatically. (TPS spokespeople could not provide actual figures by press time.)

Something is clearly afoot as the force works to rebrand community surveillance as a safety measure. But the personal stories told Monday are a reminder that policing transgressions are a major social burden. I’m thinking of Knia Singh’s tale of having to put his hands up for two gun-toting officers when he stood with his car hood up after stalling on a road. Or journalist Desmond Cole’s experience of walking his bike on a sidewalk and being hassled for ID. Police “see the colour of my skin and they see an opportunity to run my name through a database,” said Cole. “Those who have never had this happen should think about it. It hurts.”

But it was the Black Action Defence Committee’s Kingsley Gilliam who offered the ultimate dire warning. “We are creating a society where youth are afraid of police even to the point of hatred. You don’t have enough guns and tasers to control a society that hates police.” 3 | @elliekirzner

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