The provincial government cannot compel Ontario’s police forces to hand over their data on street checks — including information as to how many times the controversial practice has helped solve crimes, according to Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi.
That means that as the province continues its review of street checks, commonly known as “carding,” it will do so without knowing how often the practice has actually proved useful to investigations, by leading to an arrest, to the discovery of a weapon or drugs, or more.
“Legally we are not entitled to that data, under the Police Services Act, unless we require it in the regulation,” Naqvi told reporters during Tuesday’s public consultation at the Toronto Reference Library.
Naqvi said his ministry has been consulting with Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner about how to gain access to this policing data in aggregate form, stripped of any personal information.
“One of the reasons why this regulation is needed is to give the province the ability to require the disclosure of data, specific to how police services conduct street checks, to ensure that they are conducted in a way that is rights-based, fair and consistent across the province,” Lauren Callighen, Naqvi’s press secretary, said in an email.
Under Ontario’s Police Act, Callighen said, there are certain circumstances where the province may inspect municipal police services to review their practices, such as the use of force. “This regulation will ensure the same oversight for any policy on street checks.”
Nonetheless, in the absence of such data, the province described street checks in its online discussion document as a “necessary and valuable tool for police” when used properly —something critics of the provincial review have decried as, at best, presumptive.
Naqvi’s office did not respond to a question about what criteria were used to describe street checks as “a necessary and valuable tool,” if not police data.
The lack of information as to how carding interactions produce results has become one of the central issues in the heated debate around the practice.
Carding proponents, including Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, defend it as a vital investigative tool. Police have said the information contained in carding records can help officers connect the dots, perhaps to show an association between individuals, to place someone in an important place at a key time, and more.
During an impromptu discussion with freelance journalist and anti-carding activist Desmond Cole at Tuesday’s consultation, Saunders said a look through court decisions would show many instances where carding has added value to investigations.
“As a homicide officer for eight and a half years, running homicide for a year, I can tell you that there are numerous times that I utilized that information to lead me to successful arrests,” Saunders said.
Cole said he has no doubt that carding helps some cases, but without knowing how many stops prove valuable — and how many do not — it’s impossible to assess whether the detrimental aspects of carding are worth the gains.
A series of Toronto Star investigations has shown carding disproportionately affects black and brown men. The practice has also come under fire from critics who say they constitute a violation of Charter rights, because the are in essence arbitrary detentions.
“We just want to know the percentages,” Cole told Saunders. “If you’re saying that it’s beneficial and it helps keep people safe and prevents crime, we just want to know how often, because if you have to stop 50 of us to get one of those cases that you’re talking about, I actually think that’s a violation of all of our rights.”
McCormack, too, has said he supports the release of data, agreeing that there is currently only “anecdotal” evidence to show the value of carding. He is “100 per cent” confident the data would validate the practice.
“The fact that we haven’t collected that and put it out in a way that’s been tracked properly, that has to be something that we look at,” he told the Star last week.
Naqvi has said the government intends to establish standardized rules for Ontario police forces by this fall. Responding to criticism that the provincial review seeks to regulate rather than eliminate carding, Naqvi said he completely agrees that random and discriminatory stops must end.
“We stand opposed to arbitrary, random stops that do not have a clear policing purpose, and which are done solely for the purpose of collecting personal information,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
The deadline for written feedback to the province on carding is Sept. 21.