Hamilton Police acknowledge they stop citizens on the street and sometimes keep records of those interactions, even as their counterparts in Toronto have suspended their "carding" practice in the wake of controversy. 

'I worry about if the information of someone being stopped can be used against someone again.' - Rachael Edge, NGEN Youth Centre

But to what degree Hamilton police record racial or ethnic identifiers in cases of people not involved in a crime is still not clear. In Toronto, the inclusion of racial details have led to analyses showing the "carding" practice disproportionately affects visible minorities.

Hamilton Police told anti-racism advocates and CBC Hamilton that they stop and ask people on the street for information about where they're going, their name, where they live and in some cases for identification, even in cases where someone is not involved in an investigation or witness to a crime.

In some cases, that information is kept in a police database and it can include what police call "descriptors." Hamilton police have not clarified when or how frequently those descriptors would include racial or ethnic identity. 

Hamilton police say the practice allows for "building rapport with our community" through communication. But anti-racism advocates say that is a version of "carding" and fear the practice violates privacy and may disproportionately target visible minorities.

"Information from interactions may become part of the Service's database based on the purpose of the interaction and what information is shared," said Hamilton Police spokeswoman Catherine Martin in an email response to CBC Hamilton. 

Response delivered after December protest

According to three Hamilton anti-racism advocates, police Chief Glenn De Caire described the practice used by local police at a meeting with them and other activists last week. The three have interpreted that as confirmation of a local version of "carding."

The meeting was a response to a local Dec. 1 march in the wake of a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., which organizers called "Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter."

The practice of stopping and asking for identification even when someone is not accused of a crime — and then recording that information on a contact card, or "carding" — has been under fire for years in Toronto, where media reports and a police board-sanctioned study have shown the policy tends to disproportionately impact visible minorities. 

In response to the controversy, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair suspended the policy in January and is due to submit finalized procedures early next month.

'It's not clear as to why it's being done or pros and cons'

Police can ask people on the street any question they want. But unless the person is driving or biking, under investigation for a crime or suspected of committing another offence, such as being drunk in public, that person is not required to show ID, or answer the questions. 

"Officers respect a citizen's right to not engage," said Martin, as part of the service's response to CBC Hamilton. 

But police should make those requirements clear upfront, the anti-racism advocates say.

'Information from interactions may become part of the Service's database based on the purpose of the interaction and what information is shared.' - Catherine Martin, Hamilton Police Service

Martin said in an email that "when officers are interacting with people, it's about stopping; preventing and solving crime."  

Rachael Edge runs the NGEN Youth Centre downtown and attended last week's meeting. She said the lack of clarity about what the police are doing with the information they collect in pedestrian stops could worsen the lack of trust she's noticed between community members and the police.

"I worry about if the information of someone being stopped can be used against someone again," she said. "If I've been stopped for quote-unquote 'looking suspicious' or whatever and there's nothing that's wrong and I'm free to go, and perhaps next time I'm stopped for another reason and my information, they put it in the system and it comes up, does that make me look incriminating? I don't know."

"It's not clear as to why it's being done or pros and cons," she said.

'An invasion of privacy'

Sandra Wilson, Hamilton Police Service community relations

Hamilton Police Service community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson said at a march on Dec. 1 the service will "review, assess, take the time and respond" to the demands made by march organizers. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

In Hamilton, anti-racism march organizers demanded answers about racial profiling, including policies like stopping to ask for identification on the street and the retention of records in a database. Last week's meeting with De Caire and community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson was the police response to those demands, promised to them at the time of the march. 

"I think the fact that the police keep statistics and information about people who have not been charged, have not been arrested, have not gone to court, is an invasion of privacy," said Ken Stone, a longtime anti-racism activist in Hamilton. 

The discussion comes at a time when Hamilton Police have stepped up their presence in downtown Hamilton and the east end, deploying brightly dressed teams of officers on foot and on bikes called ACTION, or Addressing Crime Trends in Our Neighbourhoods. 

Stone said Hamilton Police, unlike their counterparts in Toronto, do not keep racial details along with the records of interactions. But the absence of those details means it's not possible to use that database to verify or disprove any racial bias in the practice of stopping people on the street, asking for IDs and recording interactions.

'We encourage engagement and cooperation with police'

Martin said the police database is a "relational" database with enhanced search capabilities and that information is put in "as it relates to safety in our city."

Repeated requests from CBC Hamilton for information over the nearly three months since that march in December have yielded responses from the Hamilton Police including: 

  • "An officer may ask for a person's name, address, what they are doing, or where they are going. In some cases the Officer may ask to see identification."

  • "An officer may ask to speak with someone for reasons that may not be immediately clear. If a person is not involved in an investigation or is not a witness to a crime, we respect their right to not engage. We encourage engagement and cooperation with police as together we enhance public safety."

  • Keeping records of that interaction "depends on the reason for the interaction and the type of interaction. If it is in response to a criminal incident or a potential criminal incident, the information could be documented in the Service's database, at the officer's discretion."

But the police have still not answered many of CBC Hamilton's questions about the discretion or guidelines the officer uses to decide to record someone's information. They have not answered what information is kept, what is done with the information, nor what racial and demographic identifiers are included. Hamilton Police also has not said how many records it has kept in its database.

"If they don't keep ethnic data that it means we'll never be able to track the ratchet effect of racial profiling," said Reuben Abib, a Hamilton-based activist with the Black Action Defence Committee.

Abib said he hopes for clarity from Hamilton Police about the use of policies like carding and the retention of information, in hopes it will "save our youth and save our people from Charter infringement." 

'I'm trying to decrease the fear from both sides'

Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter march

Attendees carried homemade signs on Dec. 1's "Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter" march through downtown Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The youth centre Edge runs provides meals, homework help and recreation programs for young people aged 13 to 24. She attended the meeting last week in hopes of inspiring more trust between police and young people in Hamilton. 

"I'm trying to decrease the fear from both sides," Edge said.

Police said after the meeting last week they "will continue the dialogue." They said they see this discussion as "an opportunity to increase our cultural competency as well as ensuring our commitment to healthy community discourse."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca