Firsthand documentary The Skin We're In features Toronto journalist Desmond Cole who wrote an award-winning story for Toronto Life, The Skin I'm In: I've been interrogated by police more than 50 times — all because I'm black. In it, he documents the personal story of his interactions with police, first in Kingston, Ont. and then in Toronto. According to a Toronto Star investigation, because he was black, Cole was 17 times more likely than a white person to be carded — or stopped by police and asked to supply personal information — in Toronto's core. He writes:
"I have been stopped, if not always carded, at least 50 times by the police in Toronto, Kingston and across southern Ontario. By now, I expect it could happen in any neighbourhood, day or night, whether I am alone or with friends. These interactions don’t scare me anymore. They make me angry. Because of that unwanted scrutiny, that discriminatory surveillance, I’m a prisoner in my own city."
In The Skin We're In, Cole recounts an encounter he had with police when he stopped to assist a black man who had called them for help.
How carding began in Toronto
The police practice of documenting the personal details of encounters with citizens — usually with no charges laid — has had many names since the '50s. Back in 1957, Toronto police were given actual cards, called "Suspect Cards," to document and forward information about persons of interest to detectives. Over the years, the card became a "form" and later a "report." By 2015, the practice was called "Community Engagements," but it the term "carding" stuck, and still involved random stops of citizens and collection of personal data — including details of physical appearance, address and contact information.
As police across North America began to integrate new technology into their investigations, information collected through carding was then put directly into computer databases. But who was being stopped and what was the information being used for?
Stop-and-Frisk in the US
The United States has had their own versions of police carding.
The New York City Police Department practiced the stop-question-and-frisk program, or "stop-and-frisk," which involves temporarily detaining, questioning and at times searching civilians on the street for weapons and other contraband. Across cities in the United States, the same practice is known as the Terry stop. These random stops and information gathering raised questions of racial profiling and its effectiveness — if any — at preventing crime.
Research suggests that stop-and-frisk had little effect, if any, on crime in New York City. After the practice dropped to less than 23,000 (at its height in 2011, more than 680,000 people were stopped by police), crime rates still went down.
Even after controlling for precinct variability and race-specific estimates of crime participation, analysis of the data showed that the vast majority of those stopped were African-American or Latino, most of whom were males 14–24.
The controversy over carding in Toronto
In 2010, the Toronto Star gained access to police data through access to information laws after a seven-year battle for the data. Toronto Star reporters analyzed the information about who police stopped and documented in mostly non-criminal encounters and presented a series of articles that showed statistical evidence of racial profiling by police, including data that showed that in particular patrol zones, black citizens were much more likely to be carded by police. The report followed decades of complaints by black leaders and community members alleging harassment and racial discrimination by Toronto police.
If stopped and questioned by Toronto Police not related to a specific crime:
- Breathe. Don't Panic
- Remember that you haven't done anything wrong.
- You have the right to ask police why you are being stopped.
- You have the right to choose to cooperate or walk away.
- You have the right to request police for their identification number.
Tips from Charles Officer, director of The Skin We're In
Response by police
The Toronto Police Association launched a $2.7 billion class action libel suit against The Star in response to the series, which caused significant public controversy. The suit was later dropped.
The opposition to carding is widespread. As Desmond Cole noted in his article, when carding is practiced in Toronto, primarily black men are targeted. The Law Union of Ontario has suggested the practice implements a systematic violation of people’s Charter rights, human rights, and privacy rights. The Office of the Ontario Ombudsman believes the practice of carding is illegal.
In April 2012, The Toronto Police Services Board, which is responsible for local policing policies, responded to the Star report by asking the city auditor to collect and analyze data on contacts between the police and community in order to establish a baseline which carding could be evaluated by December 2013. To develop a statistical factual base to determine racial bias in carding, the Board had to reauthorize the Toronto Police Services to collect and report statistics by race since reporting by race was prohibited under the Ontario Human Rights Code. The TPSB, however, directed the information was to be treated as confidential.
A new policy on carding
The Board established a subcommittee that met monthly from July 2012 to November 2013 to develop a new policy on carding. The subcommittee consisted of select members of the Board and Chief of Police. During this period, the Board heard 28 deputations from organizations including the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the African Canadian Legal Clinic, Black Action Defense Committee and received written briefs from Frontline Partners with Youth Network and Justice for Children and Youth.
While some groups wanted the practice of carding stopped, the Board took the position that it was not practical to end carding and wanted to eliminate the negative elements which the black community and civil rights groups found offensive.
A new rule banning random carding by police in Ontario came into effect in January 2017 but representatives from community groups say it doesn't go far enough. Police officers are still allowed to ask for information while doing a traffic stop, arresting or detaining someone, executing a warrant or investigating a specific crime. Read the official new rules on carding on the Ontario government website.