Friday, December 7, 2012

Police Carding

You’re walking home after a long day at school and from the corner of your eye you notice a police cruiser approaching you. You think nothing of it, as you haven’t committed a crime.

Not too long after you hear a whistle, or a “hey you”, from the direction of the cruiser and find the officer inside motioning at you to approach his vehicle. Upon approaching the driver’s side of the car, the officer asks you questions like, “where were you going?” or, “do you have any illegal substances on you”. They continue with justifications for the stop, “you matched the description of a suspect in recent residential thefts”, or “we’re looking for an individual who matches your description”. Finally, they end by asking for your personal identification card, or information like your name, age, and address. 

This policing practice is called “carding”, and is named after the requesting of ID cards that are stored in police records. The Toronto Police are also now calling these types of stops ‘street checks’.  Carding or street checks are an unfortunate reality for many youth, disproportionately so, for young males belonging to ethnic minorities. When an individual is approached by an officer and asked for personal information, the individual can decline to answer as his or her rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, however in reality, failing to answer, or “not cooperating” can lead to greater problems over simply complying with the officer’s demands.  

Also, sometimes the officer has a reason to stop you and the authority to find out who you are.  For example, if there are a number of factors that lead the officer to suspect that you are involved in a particular criminal activity, or if you are being issued a ticket for an offence like trespassing or riding your bike without a bell, the officer has the authority to find out who you are.  If you don’t identify yourself, the officer could take you to the police station to find out who you are.  It is important to find out if you must stay in the presence of the police by asking, ‘am I free to go?’  If you are not free to go, you should also ask ‘why are you stopping me?’  It is up to you if you want to share more information with the police officers but most lawyers will give you the advice that beyond identifying yourself, you have a right to remain silent and say nothing else, regardless of whether your are doing anything wrong or not.  

Why do officers collect personal information from the public?

Also known as the “208” card, the index-size-card is used to gather information about community members. It is often justified as a method to reduce crime in high-risk communities across the city. Police are asked to document their daily practice, and are to be as detailed as possible, which includes taking detailed notes of incidents as they happen, and documenting their interactions with the members of the public. This information is collected on contact cards, and is gathered in the large quantities in communities where the incidents of crime are likely to occur. Also, filling out these contact cards is regarded as good police work; the cards have been used to obtain search warrants, identify witnesses, and even sometimes aiding in trials. The information of these contacts cards are than entered in to large databases that the police use to search for connections, persons of interest, and bystanders of previous crimes. These contact cards will also later be used for reference to future crimes.

Another justification for this practice is that if the job is done right, and all the ‘bad guys’ are removed from the neighbourhood, you will be less vulnerable to victimization. This also means officers will be needed in the neighbourhood, meaning individuals will no longer be carded.

The police have been under heavy scrutiny in Toronto, as well as other large cities such as New York and London, after recent research showing that the police had a tendency to stop racial minorities much more frequently. In Toronto, this practice lead to the Toronto Police Service Board asking the Chief of Police Bill Blair to collect statistics on the rates of different groups being stopped, and to address discriminatory practices. The Board will also soon require police to give out ‘receipts’ or copies of the card stating the purpose of the stop to each individual carded.  

On November 14th, 2012, Justice for Children and Youth made a written submission and presentation to the Toronto Police Service Board about Toronto Police Service discrimination and carding practices.  See the written submission here and link to video here.

This post was written by JFCY volunteer Shawn Malik, a member of the PLE Team.  JFCY's Street Youth Legal Services lawyer, Johanna Macdonald, added some info and expertise.

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