In the years since 2016, when the provincial government passed a regulation banning the practice of arbitrary “carding” — stopping, identifying, and interrogating people who are not suspected of any crime and documenting those interactions in a database — there’s continued to be plenty of debate about it.
Many have argued that the increase in homicides in 2018 was a result of the end of the practice. Many have argued that without the ability to do it, police have no way to gather any intelligence or investigate any crime at all. Many have argued we ought to bring it back.
The report of the Independent Street Checks Review, which was conducted by Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch after over a year of study and consultation, addresses those concerns directly. There’s a chapter in his report headed, “Do Random Street Checks Actually Work?” The short answer is a definitive no. Carding does not help. Towards the end of that section of the report, Tulloch actually suggests there’s evidence that when it comes to gang violence and gun crime, carding “appears to exacerbate the problem.”
That won’t convince many of the people who have been arguing about it, but his discussion of it ought to put the debate to rest.
What’s maybe needed is clarification of what we’re talking about. The controversial practice of carding, which years of reporting by the Star and others who studied the practice revealed to be defined by racial profiling was a very specific thing. The arbitrary stopping, identifying and recording of information of people for no defined policing purpose.
This has been banned, and only this: stops that are arbitrary, with no suspicion or investigative reasoning attached to them, in which identification is demanded and recorded in a database. Tulloch goes through a long list of things police may still do: they may stop and question people who are “reasonably suspected of being implicated in an offence,” they may “approach people and question them without asking for identifying information,” they may still search anyone they have reason to believe may be carrying a weapon, they may chat with members of the public to build community relationships.
The only thing that is banned is random interrogation and documentation of people who are not suspected of doing anything more than walk down the street.
While this practice used to be widespread, Tulloch finds no evidence that it was useful. He notes that in the year immediately after the new regulation was imposed, violent crime in Ontario went down. He points to studies of similar (and now ceased) “stop and search” and “stop, question, and frisk” policies in the U.K. and the U.S. which shows in both cases little to no effectiveness.
As he concludes in his summary, carding stops “which take considerable time and effort for a police service to conduct, have little to no verifiable benefits relating to the level of crime or even arrests.” He notes that they do tend to strain police relationships with the community they serve, who feel (not unjustly, in a many cases) targeted and harassed by them.
So, carding presented human rights problems by being tantamount to racial profiling, but it was also ineffective and likely even counterproductive in addressing crime. Good riddance to that.
One problem — a legitimate one — is that police themselves seem to have been confused by the end of this practice, and may have ceased performing other useful and necessary policing tasks as a result. Tulloch notes that he heard from officers who basically stopped doing any proactive policing as a result of the end of carding.
I expressed my bewilderment at the suggestion police were reacting this way as early as 2016 when police union head Mike McCormack suggested that after the end of carding in Toronto, “What I’m hearing from my members is, there is no proactive policing engagement right now, there isn’t intelligence gathering.”
Yet Tulloch’s report suggests, almost three years later, that this is in fact a response many police officers have adopted. If it’s a problem for our political debates that the general public misunderstands what is banned and what is allowed when it comes to street checks and carding, it seems a bigger problem in practice if the police themselves share the confusion.
Tulloch recommends better training on the regulation of carding and street checks to correct this problem — which seems as long overdue as it seems obvious. Perhaps that training should emphasize, as Tulloch’s report does, all the ways police are still allowed to interact with the public, to gather information, investigate, and build relationships that will help them in their policing.
That is, after all, what all of this has been about. Good policing, for a safer city, is what virtually everyone involved in this debate wants. Tulloch’s report is just the latest piece of evidence that carding doesn’t contribute to that goal. It’s time to move on to discussing things that do.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire