Activists looking to put police 'street checks' onto public agenda

After Toronto's mayor called for an end to 'carding,' Hamilton's mayor says no conversation about Hamilton's similar "street safety checks" has come across his radar. That will soon change.

Mayor: Answering police questions part of having a 'safe, secure and well-policed community'

Hamilton activists organized a march Dec. 1 from City Hall to the Hamilton Police Service Central Station, carrying signs and chanting "Black, brown, red lives matter!" (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The mayor of Toronto recently called for an end to that city's controversial "carding" policing tactic

The mayor of Hamilton said a few days later the issue of "carding" or "street safety checks" hasn't come across his radar. 

"I'm not hearing any kind of a conversation on it at all," said Mayor Fred Eisenberger. 

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he hasn't heard any conversations about carding-related issues in Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

That's set to change later this month.

An activist who fears the street stops that Hamilton police acknowledge they do, leads to disproportionate targeting of racial minorities will push for answers in front of the chief and elected officials, including Eisenberger, at the next Hamilton Police Services Board meeting, June 25. 

That appearance will set the stage for Hamilton to enter a public debate that has been growing around the province for months. Not everyone shares the mayor's belief carding or "street stops" are not an issue here.

Coun. Matthew Green represents Ward 3 in the centre city. Green said he has "absolutely" been hearing about people being stopped on the street and questioned in Hamilton.

"And if other elected officials are not, then perhaps they need to have a better conversation with diverse communities," he said. 

The policies around street safety checks in Hamilton and how they relate to Toronto practices are unclear, he said. But he said some of the outcomes may be the same.

I think when that happens it makes people question whether or not they belong in the communities they live in.- Coun. Matthew Green, on being stopped/questioned when not under investigation

Green, who is the first black man elected to Hamilton city council, said Hamilton needs to be having a "broad, open, honest" conversation about the role of policing in creating safer communities, and the effect certain policies can have on people. He wants to know how the police define who they're going to stop, when and how.  

"If somebody is proactively stopped and they happen to fall into any number of diverse categories, and they've done nothing unlawful, then oftentimes they're left to feel, or believe, that it's because they are from these diverse categories," Green said. "That may or may not be the case. but that's what the experience feels like."

At the Police Services Board meeting, a Hamilton nurse named Gary Fondevilla plans to speak to the board, to ask for more information on the service's efforts to combat racial bias in policing, to push for more public education campaigns around individuals' interaction with the police, and to get definitions of policing terms and practices, including "street safety checks".

The checks are instances where officers stop people on the street who aren't under investigation and record some information about their interaction. 

Unlike Toronto, Hamilton police don't formally record race details in their street stops, and so tracking any incidence of disproportionate impact based on race or class is impossible.

'Nicknamed carding, right?'

Hamilton Police Service community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson has met and talked several times with the anti-racism group since the march in December. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Mayor John Tory's change of position on "carding"  ignited another round of discussion in that city about the controversial practice. A law student filed a suit challenging the practice.

But there's less clarity in Hamilton about what it looks like here. 

Hamilton Police have told anti-racism advocates they don't engage in "carding", but the "street safety checks" they do use appear to add up to the same thing, according to an internal Toronto Police report. 

Hamilton Police did not comment on the connection outlined in the report between what other services call "street checks" and "carding."

"For information on carding at Toronto Police, please contact Toronto Police directly," said Hamilton Police spokeswoman Catherine Martin.

But when CBC Hamilton asked the Police Services Board chairman Lloyd Ferguson for his take on the "street safety checks," Ferguson interjected: "Nicknamed 'carding', right?"

So that distinction — whether the "carding" shorthand applies in Hamilton — is part of the discussion. 

Ferguson said he expects after the presentation, the board will ask Chief Glenn de Caire for a report about the service's proactive policing at the June 25 meeting. Until then, he said, it's too soon to say how similar the discussion will appear to Toronto's. 

"I don't want to talk any more about it before I hear from the public," he said. "It's too premature; we've got to get more information." 

'It makes people question whether or not they belong'

Coun. Matthew Green convened a "Proud to be Ward 3" rally at JC Beemer park to help residents of the ward process the violence in their neighbourhoods and band together against it. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Green has recently called for higher police visibility in his ward, where a Sunday afternoon gunfight shocked the community last month. 

But, he said, the community should discuss whether that requires police to stop people on the street and question them, even when they're not personally under investigation. 

"Just two weeks ago I was calling for increased (police) visibility in Ward 3 due to daylight shootouts; that's the reality of our community," he said. "But we can't trade away our fundamental Charter of Rights and Freedoms for arbitrary policing."

He said the impact on someone who is stopped or targeted for questioning when they know they haven't done anything wrong can be stark. 

"I think when that happens it makes people question whether or not they belong in the communities they live in," he said. 

'That diminishes public safety'

Hamilton Police have said they will consider recording details about race when they stop people on the street who aren't under investigation and take their ID or record information. Community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson said in March that the service will be discussing it at an upcoming Police Services Board meeting, but it has not yet been placed on the board agenda. 

They have also added new wording to their brochure and app that about citizens' rights in interactions with officers when they're not under investigation. 

The street checks fall into the Hamilton Police model of proactive policing, which the service switched to in the 1990s, Martin said.

Clint Twolan, the head of Hamilton's police officers' union, said a ban in Toronto on practices like "carding" would have an impact on community safety. 

"Police are going to be less apt to do that proactive policing, and to me that diminishes public safety," he said.

In Toronto, Tory said, "I believe our police can do their jobs and keep the city safe through...stronger relationships with the communities they serve. But carding won't get us there."

'As long as it's not targeted'

Hamilton Police's "street safety checks" fit into a model of proactive policing adopted in the 1990s. (CBC)
Coun. Terry Whitehead and Madeleine Levy, also members of the Police Services Board, declined to comment, directing calls to Ferguson.

Eisenberger said answering police questions is a trade-off for having a "safe, secure and well-policed community," and he's OK with that.

"As long as it's not targeted to specific categories of people for a reason, as long as it's a random thing," he said. "Once in a while, we get asked questions that we better have appropriate answers for. I'm not offended by that; if it becomes an endemic thing on a particular group of people, that's where the problem starts to be."

Martin emphasized the police's proactive efforts are geared toward solving and preventing crime. 

"The Hamilton Police Service is not engaged in the random stopping and collecting of information from our citizens," she said. "We do not support, facilitate or enable through our policies and procedures any practice that does not lend itself to the safety and security of the citizens we serve."


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