April 25 2015
– You’re a cop on patrol at 3 a.m. and you see someone walking down an alley. Is it OK to stop that person and ask for ID? What if everything checks out? Should you still make a record of that encounter? For many police agencies the answer is yes – you never know when that record might come in handy in a future investigation.
But consider the case of Desmond Cole, a 33-year-old Toronto journalist who says he has been stopped, questioned or followed by police more than 50 times in Ontario. At what point, he asks, does intelligence gathering become meddling and intrusion? Is it fair that police have now accumulated, as Cole suspects, an internal database of his many alleged encounters when he did nothing wrong? Police in Canada are under growing pressure to rein in so-called street checks or “carding” – the practice of stopping and collecting information from someone who is not under investigation and recording that encounter on a paper or electronic form known variously as a “contact card,” “checkup slip,” “field information report” or “information only” report.
“This is a national issue,” says Noa Mendelsohn, director of the equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Policies are very much needed to restrict police activities when they don’t have grounds to detain somebody.”
The outcry has been loudest in Toronto after records compiled by the Toronto Star showed that police were disproportionately stopping black people. Other cities, including Ottawa and Hamilton, are said to be re-examining their policies too.
Cole documented some of his police encounters in a story for the most recent issue of Toronto Life magazine titled The Skin I’m In: I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times – all because I’m black.
In an interview, Cole, whose piece generated huge buzz on social media and on the airwaves, clarified that 50 is an estimate and includes a number of occasions when police “followed me in my car, but never actually stopped me.”
“All other instances were police either questioning me for no reason, asking for my documentation for no reason or noticeably documenting my behaviour to the point where I approached myself and asked the officer what he was doing.”
One time, Cole says he was stopped while walking with friends down a laneway. Another time, he was walking his bike down the sidewalk, steps away from his
“I have been stopped while standing, walking, doing errands, going to and from work,” he says.
The repeat encounters, he says, have left him feeling bitter, insecure and paranoid.
“It takes a toll on your ego and self-esteem.”
Cole’s accounts could not be confirmed with Toronto police. But a former Toronto police detective insists carding has “high value” and is “not very invasive.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the ex-detective said police will typically stop someone if there is something unusual about their behaviour or their location. Maybe it’s 3 a.m. and they’re walking down an alley in a high-crime neighbourhood.
The stops usually last no longer than two minutes. Even if the person did nothing wrong, there’s value in submitting a record of that encounter, the former detective said.
Let’s say there’s a rash of break and enters. Police can now search records of people who’ve been previously stopped in the area, go back to some of them and see if they know anything.
“In a city of millions, you need a starting point,” he says.
Edmonton police Sgt. Steve Sharpe says his officers take care to label such records as “information only.”
Let’s say there’s been a rash of arsons in a neighbourhood committed between 2 and 4 a.m. and the suspect description is a thin male, wearing a baseball cap and riding a bike, he says.
“Officers in the days following the arsons may submit a report stating, ‘I spoke to (Name/DOB) who was riding along 107 Avenue at 3:20 a.m. He stated he was leaving his warehouse job and this is his normal route home. He was wearing a white baseball cap and riding a red mountain bike. Submitted as information only.”
Such records have “without a doubt” helped to solve numerous cases, says Insp. Scott Boyd of the Calgary Police Service.
He remembers stopping a guy in an alley late one night. Boyd made a record of the encounter and mentioned the guy emitted a strong odour of paint.
A couple of months later, detectives were investigating a bank robbery. They learned from a bank clerk the robber smelled of paint.
They queried their internal database and came upon the man whom Boyd had encountered earlier. They later charged the guy, who turned out to be a painter, in connection with a string of robberies. Cole and other critics remain skeptical of carding’s value and say its use should be curtailed. The only time police ought to stop and document someone is if they’re under suspicion of committing a crime or believed to have information about a crime, Cole says.
Critics thought they had made headway last year when Toronto’s police services board revised the policy to say police must have a “public-safety purpose” for stopping and documenting someone and must issue receipts explaining why someone was stopped.
But many of the revisions were dialed back. The policy does prohibit officers from using race, ethnic origin, age or gender as the basis for stopping someone, unless they form part of a specific suspect, victim or witness description.
Other agencies are taking a second look at their own policies. Ottawa police are consulting with lawyers, academics and human rights advocates to draft a policy to provide “clear guidelines on when street checks are warranted, training on situations that warrant or do not warrant a street check, quality assurance standards and internal oversight,” Chief Charles Bordeleau says in an email.
Critics say if police insist on doing these citizen stops, at least there should be a requirement they record ethnicity/race to monitor for bias.
The CBC reported earlier this month Hamilton police were considering this, but a spokeswoman this week refused to confirm it.
Ottawa and Calgary police said there is already space on their contact forms to include details about race. Edmonton police said it is “not normal practice” to collect racial data. Vancouver police said it’s left to the discretion of each officer.
Officials say records of citizen stops do not show up on employment background checks. Still, Cole plans to file a freedom-of-information request to see what kind of information has been kept on him.
– Douglas Quan