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Toronto police board rebuffs demands to trash ‘carding’ data

In this file photo from Sept. 1, 2015, the African Canadian Legal Clinic held a silent protest about street checks in Toronto at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor streets. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Police Services Board approved a long-awaited revised policy on the police practice known as carding on Thursday, but rebuffed demands from activists to destroy the force's existing database, which is made up of thousands of controversial street-check reports.

The new policy, drafted to reflect provincewide regulations announced in March, tells officers to inform anyone they approach for questioning who is not suspected of a crime of their right not to answer or even identify themselves.

The policy also explicitly bans approaching anyone for this kind of questioning because they are part of a "racialized group." Those stopped will receive "receipts" detailing the encounter. Enhanced police training and a public awareness campaign are also in the works.

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But activists in recent weeks have focused on the fate of the police force's existing database of personal details in thousands of reports from carding, which they say unfairly targets black youth and other marginalized groups. Some pushed for it to be destroyed, so that police could no longer make use of information that was, in some cases, gathered illegally.

They did not get their wish. Legal experts pointed out the data could not simply be destroyed because it is central to various lawsuits pending against the police, including a class-action launched over carding and Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenges.

The police board's carding policy would, however, cut off access to the database by everyday police investigators. But it would allow Chief Mark Saunders, or senior officers designated by him, to access it, although any use of the database would be tracked and reported quarterly to the police board. A review panel would also scrutinize its use.

This did not satisfy police critics.

"There is zero right or reason why Mark Saunders or any other police officer should have any access to that information," said Desmond Cole, a writer and activist who has spearheaded the fight against carding.

Mayor John Tory, who is on a trade mission to Israel and the West Bank, issued a statement saying that while he initially advocated for destroying the carding data, he understood the legal reasons it must be maintained and supported the new policy.

Police services board member Shelley Carroll, a city councillor, moved a motion to have the city's legal department annually update police about the progress of any lawsuits where the data would still be relevant. She also said the police board would closely scrutinize any use of the controversial database and crack down on any abuse: "If we see excessive access, excessive use, I daresay this board will act."

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Ms. Carroll said police had argued the data could be used by police investigating cold cases, for example. But Chief Saunders, speaking to reporters, suggested a wide range of uses for the database, such as deducing places where a missing Alzheimer's patient might have wandered off to, discovering whether someone was believed to be suicidal, or finding information that might help in solving abduction cases.

"If we have access to that information, it can potentially save lives," the Chief said. "If this information can save somebody's life, I think that's important to think about."

The way police have stopped people for questioning and maintained records of those stops has had police at loggerheads with anti-racism advocates and black community activists for years. A 2014 policy restricting arbitrary police stops passed by the board was not implemented by then-chief Bill Blair, but a less-stringent version of that policy was passed last year.

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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