In the wake of debate over a Hamilton Police tactic to stop and question community members who may not be under investigation, the head of the police union says sometimes it's a "proactive policing" measure that isn't always apparent to the general public.

Police officers apply years of instinct and experience when patrolling the streets of Hamilton to suss out criminal activities that "are not necessarily overt," said Clint Twolan, recently elected president of the Hamilton Police Association.

But Twolan said officers working in the downtown core have a big job to do to instill a sense of safety in a part of town that is redeveloping. 

'Let's be honest. Policing isn't a perfect science.' - Clint Twolan, president of the Hamilton Police Association

"If you were to canvass the downtown business owners, I'm sure they would tell you they're glad to see police actively engaging in the people in the downtown core to ensure that their clients as well feel safe," Twolan said.

That kind of active engagement may resemble interactions where Hamilton Police ask questions of people who may not be accused of a crime and collect and store personal information about them. Anti-racism advocates met with Chief Glenn De Caire and Hamilton Police's community relations coordinator Sandra Wilson and asked them to stop that practice. The service said Monday it would explore two initiatives to help measure and combat potential racial profiling in policing.

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

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

Twolan, who spent 18 years in policing before assuming the union post, said it's been several years since he worked on the streets downtown. Policing is a mix of "casual conversation, instinct and previous professional experience," he said.

"Let's be honest. Policing isn't a perfect science," Twolan said. "The actions that the officers take, it's in the interest of their job — what they're obliged, what they're required to do. Because it's not an exact science, people may feel like they're targeted."

'It's a very fine line'

ACTION officers play a key role in increasing feelings of security and safety for business owners and curbing the perception of downtown as dirty or unsafe, said Kathy Drewitt, executive director for the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement Association.

'I think it's one of those things you do where you're darned if you do, darned if you don't. If you collect it, are you trying to racially profile? If you don't collect it, are you trying to hide something?' - Clint Twolan, president of the Hamilton Police Association

Drewitt acknowledged the service is walking a fine line between respecting the privacy of community members walking down the street and doing their work. Drewitt represents 470 businesses and 175 property owners between Mary and Hunter streets and MacNab and Wilson streets.

"You wouldn't expect to have a police officer stop you outright and ask you for ID," Drewitt said. "But if you're standing out in front of a building, panhandling or stopping people from going into that businesses and you're a bit — suspicious, I guess — I think that would be one of the reasons why. The police are trying to help the business owner from losing any customers."

Twolan said he's concerned that any measures like the ones Hamilton Police are exploring will add to what officers are asked to do. 

The service said Monday it will consider in 2015 issuing "receipts" when community members are stopped and questioned or asked for their ID, so they have a record of the interaction. Twolan said it'd be up to the service to evaluate the merits of such an approach, but that he has concerns.

"There's going to be a cost associated with that," Twolan said. "When special interest groups put forth these suggestions, it's a cost that has to be shouldered by somebody."

Police responsibility 'not always readily understood'

Police also said they would consider discussing with the police services board a new policy to formally record race-based information in so-called "street safety checks" as a way to measure whether there is evidence of racial profiling.

Twolan said he doesn't agree with that tactic. 

"But I think it's one of those things you do where you're darned if you do, darned if you don't," he said. "If you collect it, are you trying to racially profile? If you don't collect it, are you trying to hide something?"

Twolan said the scope of police officers do, especially "proactive policing," is not widely understood. 

"It doesn't surprise me because some people are just not comfortable talking to the police, and then there's other people who just don't like the police," he said. "We're expected as police officers to do our duty. Those expectations are not always readily understood by the vast majority of people."