Between 2011 and 2014, the
Ottawa police stopped and questioned 45,802 people who were not committing any
crimes. The police call these interactions “street checks,” but they are also
known as “carding.” Those words conjure
up notions of a totalitarian police state — and that’s not far from the truth.
Carding occurs when police
randomly stop and question people — for no real reason. The police officer
collects information about the individual’s age, sex, address, names of their
friends and details about where they are going and what they are doing. That
information is then fed into a police database. This random questioning is not
connected to any specific crime and the encounters are not really random at all
- a disproportionate number people who are carded are visible minorities.
The fact that visible
minorities were the targets of police carding operations should not come as a
surprise. It has long been known that police
disproportionally target visible minorities for drug offences. And, a 2016
report, which was spurred by a human rights complainant
alleging racial profiling, reviewed two years of traffic stops in Ottawa and found that visible minorities were pulled over more often by police
despite the fact they were not committing more traffic offences.
There is no question that systemic
racism continues to infect many of our public institutions. So, the Ontario
government took action and introduced
legislation designed to reign in the practice of carding and impose
reporting requirements on the police.
It seemed like a good idea
motivated by good intentions.
it was absurdly
naive to think that a simple regulation could cure decades of systemic racism
in Ontario’s police forces. Last month, the Ottawa Police Service released its first
the numbers were shocking. The police claim they have only conducted seven street
checks over the last year. Seven.
The number is so low and such
a departure from the tens of thousands of street checks conducted in the years
prior that it defies believability.
There may be a number of
reasons for the low number. The Ontario carding legislation has a number of
loopholes that may be responsible for masking the continued extent of
supposedly random street checks. The legislation does not require police to
report any carding arising during traffic stops (and we know in Ottawa the
police do love to stop racialized drivers for no reason). The legislation also
gives the police free reign to card at will if they suspect a crime has been or will
be committed. Perhaps the police are interpreting “suspect a crime has been or
may be committed” very broadly to avoid oversight. Maybe they have just shifted
carding to traffic stops. It is hard to tell because the police won’t release
any data on how many times they have used the exceptions or the outcome of
Legislation designed to fix the
carding problem might have just driven it underground.
But the potential damage runs
deeper than mere questionable carding statistics. The Ottawa police have chosen
to weaponize the new legislation for political gain, linking the decline in
carding to a one-month increase in violent crime.
In the first month of 2018,
there were 13 shootings
This is a high number — almost double the monthly average of shootings for
2017. There is no way to tell if the increased gun play is part of a trend or
simply a statistical blip. But the police wasted no time in linking
restrictions on carding, which they have long opposed, to the one-month increase
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, blamed the
“crippling” carding regulations for the “dramatic increase” in the number of
shootings." Of course, Skof provided no evidence to back up his
So, Skof’s logic is that we can
reduce gun violence by devoting thousands of hours of police resources to
randomly asking young black and Middle Eastern men who are not suspected of
committing any criminal offences for their papers. It is an absurd position,
which is not supported by even the most basic principles of logic.
Skof ignores that in 2014, 2015
and 2016 — when there were no carding rules and the Ottawa police carded tens of
thousands of people — shooting incidents increased.
Skof ignores that driving wedges
between the police and racialized communities may actually harm investigations
and disincentivize community co-operation.
Skof ignores that the 13
shootings in January may be a statistical anomaly.
Most importantly, Skof ignores
that the police can still perform street checks — they just need to do it
lawfully and report the interaction. If street checks were so important to
solving gun crime, then maybe the police would have tried to do it more than
When the police misrepresent
evidence and embrace a lack of transparency for political purposes, confidence
in the administration of justice suffers.
But maybe Skof’s comments should
not come as a surprise. The data on the frequency and impact of street checks
following the new legislation may be murky and incomplete, but there is a long
history of the police disregarding civil rights and turning a blind eye to
And that may prove Ontario’s new
carding rules to be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.