Hamilton Police street check blank form

A copy of the Hamilton Police form used to compile and record personal information in "street checks," obtained by CBC Hamilton under a Freedom of Information request. (Hamilton Police Service)

The paper form that Hamilton Police use for street checks looks nearly identical to the "carding" forms used in Toronto.

The form, a blank copy of which was obtained by CBC Hamilton under a Freedom of Information request, has more than 65 fields for officers to write in personal information of people they stop on the street, including individuals' race, appearance, gang affiliation, names of "associates," and, for minors, whether their parents are divorced or separated.

Hamilton's street check form closely resembles what Toronto calls its "field information report" from which carding got its colloquial name.

"It's almost a carbon copy," said attorney Vilko Zbogar, who is representing a plaintiff suing the Toronto Police Service on the constitutionality of its carding practice. "It asks for the exact same information. They're moving some of the boxes around a little bit."

Ontario is currently looking at ways to regulate the controversial practice used by many forces in the province. Critics say it is unconstitutional, a violation of privacy and often targets visible minorities.

It's unclear how many of the fields get filled in when Hamilton officers conduct the thousands of street checks they do in a year. But whatever information they record is transferred into police database, where it is retained indefinitely. 

"This whole thing seems to be a violation of people's privacy," Zbogar said. "It's really over the line."

The Hamilton card appears to include at least one question — about whether minors' parents are divorced — that Toronto Police have stopped asking after community outcry, said attorney Howard Morton, who is a member of the Law Union of Ontario and an outspoken critic of carding.

In a meeting in July, Deputy Chief Eric Girt defined "street checks" as "police engaging with the community members for investigative purposes" and said they work: Information gathered in street checks is helping to solve a current homicide investigation, he said.

The province in its definition, notes street checks are not connected to a specific investigation.

The release of the form makes clear some of the ways Hamilton Police have obfuscated the street checks practice under community and media scrutiny in the months after a march in December, when protesters called for an absolute end to carding and a destruction of the database. 

Race

The form contains a field marked simply "race". 

Hamilton Police have been saying for years, as recently as June, that they don't keep race-based statistics and thus can't evaluate their policing the way that has been done in other Ontario cities. In February, police spokeswoman Catherine Martin said police sometimes include "descriptors" in their notes from interactions, but didn't say when or how frequently those descriptors would include racial or ethnic identity. 

But in July, Deputy Chief Eric Girt showed the Hamilton Police Services board a breakdown of street checks by race. 

And the release of the form confirms that the police have a way to record race information from their street stops; they just hadn't previouisly analyzed that data. The data released shows Hamilton street checks disproportionately target visible minorities, especially blacks.

Relation to Toronto

Unlike some other police chiefs around the province, Chief Glenn De Caire has resisted comparing the Hamilton practice to Toronto's, except to say that Hamilton's street checks are not "arbitrary." 

"For information on carding at Toronto Police, please contact Toronto Police directly," Martin wrote in June.

Chief Glenn De Caire

Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire said he'd report back to the board at its July meeting with answers to some concerns raised about privacy and racial bias in street stops. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

And in July, De Caire skirted reporters' questions about whether street checks are the same as carding with this: "This is where there are definitions that will come forward for the board to entertain at the next meeting as we have committed to. And what we are going to do is we'll clarify at that point all of those issues for us."

But now it's clear the police use a physical form and it looks nearly identical to Toronto's. (Toronto Life magazine included an image of a 2011 field information report from that city alongside an article written by journalist and activist Desmond Cole, who wrote about his personal experience being carded.)

Zbogar said the HPS form suggests either the province's chiefs have a shared template for these stops, or that "Chief De Caire just borrowed from Toronto when he came to Hamilton." 

De Caire came to Hamilton from Toronto in 2009 after serving as commander for the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, implemented as an answer to gun and gang activity. Carding has been a frequently used tool in TAVIS for gathering intelligence.

In Hamilton, De Caire used Provincial Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, or PAVIS, funding to form Hamilton's ACTION teams to focus on high-crime neighbourhoods. 

Personal privacy

Seeing the form does nothing to ease the privacy concerns that advocates like Zbogar and Morton have about the police practice. 

Zbogar said the similar form in Toronto prompted questions about why police needed to ask young people whether their parents are divorced or separated. 

"The problem here is that this kind of personal information, unless it's being collected for the purpose of a specific investigation, it's a violation of people's privacy. It shouldn't be kept in a police-wide database."

Girt said last month the relevancy of information recorded might not become apparent for "a year, two years, three years" after the fact. 

Zbogar sued the Hamilton Police Service a few years ago on behalf of his client Michael Dixon. The wrongful arrest case was settled and the service agreed to adopt some changes, such as formally acknowledging that racial profiling exists in policing. 

Zbogar said during that suit he got an impression Hamilton police don't like being compared to Toronto, that the bigger city has different problems than Hamilton does. 

"But at the same time you have basically the same form, the same procedure going on," he said. "Clearly there are differences between those two cities...But at the same time, one of the similarities, unfortunately, is that they have the same way of violating people's Charter rights."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

What do you think about the police practice of stopping, documenting and questioning people on the street? You can share your opinions with the province as part of its review of the practice.