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Critics concerned by findings in review of Medicine Hat Police 'street check' practices

Medicine Hat's chief of police says an internal review supports his service's practice of street checks — but critics say the data shows Indigenous and black people are disproportionately carded.

In 2011, Medicine Hat's black population was 0.5% of the city but they made up 5% of street checks

Alberta lawyer Miranda Hlady says a report into Medicine Hat Police Service's street check practices demonstrates ethnic minorities are more likely to be stopped by police than their population would warrant. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Medicine Hat's chief of police says an internal review supports his service's practice of street checks — but critics say the data shows Indigenous and black people are disproportionately carded.

Chief Andy McGrogan says the service is initiating some changes following an internal review — but said the report dispels any notions of racism, which had been raised as concerns in other Alberta cities over the past year.

"It verified what we already knew.... I think over 80 per cent of the folks we did street checks on were Caucasian," McGrogan said.

"It was a reflection of our community's demographics, actually, so we thought we were basically OK there."

'I don't actually think it makes any sense'

But critics like Lethbridge lawyer Miranda Hlady disagree, saying the numbers provided by the service in the review's report speak for themselves.

The report states that the same year (2011) when more than 80 per cent of the street checks were of Caucasians, the Indigenous and black communities made up a combined total of 4.5 per cent of the population.

According to the Medicine Hat police numbers, these groups represented 11 per cent of street checks.

That's what troubles Hlady, who obtained the report through a freedom of information request.

This table, from the Medicine Hat Police Service's internal report, states the demographics of the individuals who were street checked by year. (Screenshot)

"The report, interestingly enough, doesn't actually talk about black people being over-carded. It does conclude somehow that Indigenous people aren't being over-carded, and I don't actually think it makes any sense given the information they gave us," she said. 

"Their own numbers show Indigenous people being carded more often than they should be carded, and the number for black people are even more outrageous."

Hlady said that with such a high percentage of the checks being those two populations, it also raises the question if the same individuals are being stopped repeatedly. 

"We wouldn't expect a difference like 0.5 per cent of your population being black and five per cent of your carded people being black, because that's a huge difference," she said.

'Trust will help with reconciliation within this community'

Marlene Cadotte of Medicine Hat's Miywasin Friendship Centre says many of her Indigenous clients have complained of being carded.

"I had a young native man who came in right off the street after it happened to him. He was walking down the street, downtown here. All of a sudden the police stopped him and asked him his name and for his ID," she said.

"They didn't say because of, or you look suspicious of — they just wanted to know who he was because they didn't recognize him."

Marlene Cadotte of the Miywasin Friendship Centre says she'd like to see the practice of street checks end. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Cadotte said the man complied but was frustrated to be stopped in the middle of the day for no apparent reason.

"He was taken aback by it because it had never happened before," she said. "He asked why they would be doing this."

Cadotte said she believes these interactions are harming the relationship between the city's Indigenous population and the police.

"If we can lessen that or even stop that, I think that trust will help with reconciliation within this community," she said.

'They are used, they are effective'

According to Hlady, the purpose of carding hasn't been made clear by Medicine Hat Police.

"There is nothing in this report that really shows what the purpose of carding is and if it's actually achieving that purpose, and how police would, in fact, determine whatever purpose they intended for it," she said. 

But McGrogan insists street checks are an important and integral part of policing.

"We're basically asked by our citizens to police our city and keep it safe, and we've always contended that street checks are an important part of that, and it's an important tool for basically solving crime and potentially preventing crime," he said.

Andy McGrogan, Medicine Hat Police Chief and president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police. (CBC )

When asked to provide data or examples to demonstrate street check effectiveness, McGrogan couldn't.

"We do use the information, but it's not like we say, 'Well, that helped us get a search warrant on this.' We haven't kept that [data] and we really don't know how to gather that other than hoping someone remembers and puts it into a drum of information," he said. 

"They are used, they are effective, but to give you actual stats on their effectiveness, I really can't, other than to say we do use them."

Hlady said another red flag raised in the report for her was that the number of people who refused to comply with street checks was zero.

"It's not only zero one year, it's zero in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — and to us that suggests people do not feel they can decline to participate in the carding process, and it's probably because the police are not telling them they can decline," she said.

McGrogan said he doesn't think officers should begin their street check interactions with citizens by informing citizens it's not compulsory. 

"If every time I went out in the street in uniform and the first thing I said to a citizen is, 'you don't have to talk to me if you don't want to,' I mean, what kind of dialogue and how is that for engaging our community,' he said. "I don't think that's what most Albertans would want."

New street check policy ready for approval

The review has prompted the Medicine Hat Police Service to initiate more bias training with their officers as well as create a written policy for street checks, among other small changes.

"There is a policy, basically a standard operating procedure for street checks that has been developed and is ready for our review and then dissemination," said McGrogan, adding that the policy recommends a seven-year retention of street check information.

Hlady is collecting data from all seven independent police stations across the province. She said it's important people understand that carding isn't a big city problem.

"It's something that has an impact on marginalized people living in these communities. It's also important people understand that we also don't want to see white people being carded either," she said. "We would like the carding to stop for everyone." 

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta,. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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