Carding and street checks: What they're saying in Hamilton and other cities

Elsewhere in the province, mayors and police chiefs have been weighing in on the controversial practice of "carding or "street checks." But so far in Hamilton, activists and a councillor have been the loudest voices in the conversation.

The discussion heads to an oversight board meeting for the Hamilton Police this Thursday

An advocacy group assembled after a December march will address the Police Services Board on Thursday. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Cities across southern Ontario are debating a controversial tool police use to solve and prevent crimes. It's called "carding" in Toronto and "street checks" elsewhere. The practice is a means of documenting interactions police officers have with people on the street who may not be under investigation or witness to a crime, and then logging that information in a database. 

In Hamilton, the discussion heads to an oversight board meeting for the Hamilton Police this Thursday. A representative of an anti-racism activism group called "Black, Brown, Red Lives Matter" will call for more clarity about street checks and raise concerns about the potential for police racial bias in determining whom to stop and question. 

Elsewhere in the province, mayors and police chiefs have been weighing in on the practice of "carding or "street checks". But to this point in Hamilton, activists and a councillor have been the loudest voices in the conversation. How important a tool is it? Police statistics show in Hamilton there are 10 to 15 street checks daily.

Police rely on these contacts and conversations, which they say are not done randomly, to proactively lead them to answers on crimes nearby. Critics of the practice say it infringes on citizens' rights to privacy and may impact certain people, like visible minorities, more than others.

The provincial minister for Community Safety and Correctional Services has pledged to consult with cities and determine province-wide standards for the practice.

What public officials have been saying in Hamilton: 

Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire (CBC file photo)
Hamilton Police chief Glenn De Caire
 has not spoken publicly about street checks or carding.

Hamilton's mayor, Fred Eisenberger, has said the discussion is not on his radar, but said he'd be concerned if it was revealed a particular group was targeted. Otherwise, the idea that police stop people and ask questions is a trade-off for having a "safe, secure and well-policed community," he said.

The chair of the Police Services Board, Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, has said he expects the board on Thursday will ask the chief for a report on the practice. "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."

Coun. Matthew Green, who represents Ward 3 in the centre city, said he worries about the impact on someone who is stopped or targeted for questioning when they know they haven't done anything wrong. "I think when that happens it makes people question whether or not they belong in the communities they live in," he said. He called for a "broad, open and honest conversation" about the practice with the police.

Here's how the discussion has been playing out elsewhere:

Toronto Mayor John Tory. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
A 2012 Toronto report linked "street checks" in Durham, Peel, Ottawa and York to the "carding" practice in Toronto.

The discussion hasn't always been clear, nor terms defined the same way from place to place.

But here's a sampling of what the discussion on street checks has looked like in other Ontario cities in recent weeks.

Toronto: Mayor John Tory had called for a permanent end to the "carding" practice, but backed down from that stance last week and voted instead for restrictions including requiring officers to give a receipt to the people they stop. 

Peel: The mayors of Brampton and Mississauga requested Peel police explain their street check practices. The chief told the Toronto Star that police stop individuals and collect personal information and enter it into a database "even if no criminality or investigation is involved." The chief welcomed the development of new standards across Ontario.

York: "York Regional Police does not engage in the practice of carding, which we define as the systemic questioning or collecting of information from citizens in specific target areas," said York Regional Police spokesman Andy Pattenden.

He defined that service's street checks protocol: "Our officers are expected to make use of a function in our records management system to gather information and intelligence by documenting interactions such as traffic stops where only warnings are issued, noise or youth complaints where no charge is laid or calls regarding suspicious people or vehicles." Officers will undergo additional training emphasizing the noncriminal interactions are voluntary for citizens, he said.

Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police: The association issued a statement welcoming the new provincial review and standards: "Interacting with the community is a critical component of how police officers carry out their duties in order to protect the public and maintain public safety. A small number of these interactions result in street checks."

'Not engaged in the random stopping and collecting'

While Hamilton Police confirm they do sometimes stop people on the street, ask their name and address, ask for ID and record some information about that interaction, they have not drawn a connection between that practice and "carding" under controversy in Toronto. Police don't engage in "random stopping and collecting of information," said Catherine Martin, spokeswoman for the Hamilton Police. 

"An officer may ask to speak with someone for reasons that may not be immediately clear," she said. "If a person is not involved in an investigation or is not a witness to a crime, we respect their right to not engage."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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