Police forces in Ontario have been sharing information obtained through the practice known as carding with federal police and intelligence services, according to a new report that bolsters calls by advocates to have the historical data deleted.
According to a 2014 document seen by the Toronto Star, municipal police services are required to share intelligence with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, and the Ontario Provincial Police.
Until four months ago, police forces across Ontario liberally employed the use of carding, which consists of arbitrarily stopping and questioning people who are not suspected of a crime. It’s a practice that gained notoriety in Toronto, where police would regularly collect the individuals’ names, ages, physical descriptors like skin colour, height, weight, address, and names of their friends.
Data shows that the practice disproportionately affected black and brown men. Toronto police’s own data showed that racialized youth were 2.5 times more likely to be subjected to street checks than white youths, according to a 2010 report by the Toronto Star that analyzed six years worth of carding data.
“You’re going to ruin another generation of children’s lives.”
And while new rules have been brought into force that aim to curb the use of carding, Toronto police have remained steadfast in their refusal to destroy the database of information they have built up over the years.
Between 2008 and 2013, Toronto police filled out 2.1 million contact cards for 1.2 million people, according to the Star — of those, 14, 150 were passed along to the service’s own intelligence unit. Critics are worried that sharing the information up the chain will lead to further stigmatization of people who are already disproportionately targeted by police.
A new Toronto police policy states that access to the carding data must be approved by the police chief, and only in situations of significant public interest, but critics say that is simply not enough.
“I plan to stand here in protest until you commit today, here and now, to restricting the police having access to our information going forward,” Desmond Cole, a Toronto journalist and prominent voice on the issue, told the city’s police board this week.
“You’re going to ruin another generation of children’s lives, and I’m not going to allow you to do it.”
Here’s what you need you to know about the new rules, why activists want the trove of data deleted, and why the Toronto police won’t do it.
The new rules
Following years of outcry from racial justice and police accountability organizations, the provincial government introduced legislation designed to stop arbitrary and discriminatory street checks in January.
Saunders has said there will be a “very high watermark” with regards to when the data can be used.
The Toronto police board followed with a slew of measures to prevent cops from collecting identifying information “arbitrarily” or based on someone’s race or presence in a high crime neighbourhood. The new measures also require police officers to provide receipt at the end of a carding stop, including their name, badge number, and information on how to make a complaint.
According to the new policy, requests to access the historical carding data must be approved by Police Chief Mark Saunders and are supposed to be granted only in cases of significant public interest or to comply with a legal requirement.
The chief would be required to publicly report on the the requests, how many have been approved and why, and whether or not the data served a purpose. A panel would oversee the chief’s reports.
Saunders has said there will be a “very high watermark” with regards to when the data can be used. And Mayor John Tory told CP24 there were “safeguards” in place to ensure the data wouldn’t be used improperly.
But while the police lauded their own limitations on the system, Toronto police refused to destroy the information completely, citing ongoing lawsuits against the force.
In an interview with VICE News, Cole said that police violated the privacy of the people they stopped over the years who weren’t suspected of any crime, and essentially built a “non-criminal record of suspicion against people who were not doing anything criminal.
“These restrictions and limitations will not inspire public trust again.”
“If you believe as I do, that the police never had the right to that information in the first place, then they should all access immediately.”
There hasn’t been a report from Saunders yet on how carding data has been accessed since the new rules took effect.
But Toronto lawyer and advocate Anthony Morgan said there’s little trust among the community that the data won’t be misused by police. It was the provincial government, he points out, that stepped in and introduced new legislation on carding, forcing the police to adapt.
“I don’t think it’s sufficient,” Morgan said. “These restrictions and limitations will not inspire public trust again. We have to look at the circumstances under which this data was extracted, and there’s little that we know about all the different ways that information can be used.”
Morgan laid out one possible scenario that resembles many cases he’s seen in the past: Imagine you are a postsecondary student who happens to live in a disadvantaged neighbourhood with a high rate of crime and you go to school, and occasionally socialize with, people “who might be involved in that life.”
“But one time, you happened to be with one of these people when police rolled up on you and carded you, ” Morgan continued.
If the other person ends up being caught up in a criminal investigation by the police, and there’s a record of you being in their presence, there’s a chance you’ll also become a suspect, explained Morgan, even if you never had a clue of their criminal involvement.
“The guilt-by-association nature that comes from these instances of carding actually ends up wasting a lot of police resources because they create these webs of connections of hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Morgan.
”They end up questioning a lot of individuals who frankly should not have had their information extracted in the first place.”
“People just assume that the police have the right to all our information.”
Regardless, Morgan said, police retaining the information has already created a chilling effect on people who have been carded — some have decided against applying for certain jobs, degree programs, and volunteer opportunities in which a police background check might be required.
For example, Cole pointed to George ‘Knia’ Singh, a law student with no criminal record, whose request for a ride-along with the Toronto police for his criminal law class was denied last year because he’d been carded in the company of people with criminal records.
“People just assume that the police have the right to all our information, all our bodies, all our privacy all the time,” said Cole, explaining why the conversation on the carding data has been difficult.
“If they’d go out and talk to average black people, they’d figure out how quickly something like this can have an effect on your life.”
Cover: A meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board was adjourned abruptly on Thursday afternoon when journalist Desmond Cole refused to leave in protest at the decision police make to retain data collected through the controversial practice of carding. Matt Galloway/Twitter