No changes necessary to street check policy, Edmonton police chief says

Amid concerns about racial profiling, Ontario is moving to ban random street checks, commonly known as “carding.” But Edmonton police insist that street checks aren’t a concern here.

Rod Knecht says random police checks don’t occur here like they do in Ontario

Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht says his officers don't randomly check people. (CBC )

The Edmonton Police Service will not make changes to its controversial street check policy following an internal review.

Amid concerns about racial profiling, Ontario is moving to ban random street checks, commonly known as "carding." But Edmonton police insist that street checks aren't a concern here.

"No, we don't think it's a problem here," said Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht Friday. "We don't randomly check people.

"And I think that's the difference between the two. Here if we check somebody it's because we have reasonable probable grounds that they've committed a crime, or we have reasonable suspicion, or it's just basic community policing where we're out there talking to people but we're not just randomly checking people at all."

Each year, Edmonton police stop, question and document tens of thousands of citizens who are not under arrest.

Street-check figures provided to CBC by Edmonton police showed between 2011 and 2014 officers stopped and documented an average 26,000 people per year. The information is stored indefinitely.

Edmonton police called a news conference to defend street checks, which local critics say are just as discriminatory as they are in Ontario and should be abolished. Insp. Dan Jones told reporters an internal review showed street checks in Edmonton are being handled properly.

"The review we did -- we feel that we as an organization are absolutely following along with fair and equitable policing across the board," said Jones.

The Ontario government announced earlier this week it will ban all random and arbitrary police stops.  It will also require police to inform people upfront that stops are voluntary and provide documentation and a reason for the stop.

The policy was the result of province-wide public consultations sparked by widespread criticism about the practice.

In Edmonton, police say street check practices are regularly reviewed with legal advisers and department staff, taking into account issues like equity, diversity and human rights.

Community groups, such as Native Counselling Services and the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, are also consulted, police say.

"They're not getting complaints," Jones said. "In fact, in speaking with people from Boyle Street yesterday, they appreciate that we go out and talk to the community."

Alberta not likely to follow Ontario 

A CBC News investigative report in September indicated there is concern about street checks, however. Leaders in the aboriginal and legal community called for stricter limits to be placed on the practice, citing issues of racial profiling and violation of privacy.

But some on the support service frontlines who were invited to the Friday police news conference challenged that view.

"I've heard absolutely nothing," said Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of the Bent Arrow society which serves about 12,000 people a year. "I checked and it's just not an issue with the community that we're serving."

Teresa Strong called street checks a "life saver" that kept her safe during 18 years on the street.

A former gang member and addict, who now works with the DECSA Transitions program helping others get their lives together, said she was carded a few hundred times, often by Jones, who used to patrol the streets.  

"I can say first hand that Dan saved my life," declared Strong.

Strong echoed comments from Jones, who said random checks allowed him as a police officer to build relationships with people on the streets. For some, it might even be the last point of contact before they disappear, so the stops help in a subsequent police investigation.

"If you're not in trouble and you're not living the lifestyle, you're never going to get bothered. Like I never get bothered by the police now that I am sober and clean, and being a part of society rather than a menace," said Strong.

Critics of street checks have called for rules requiring police to inform people upfront that they have the right to walk away without co-operating.

But Jones rejected that idea, suggesting opening a conversation with a person during a street check would defeat the purpose.

"If I walked up to some of these individuals and said, 'You have the right not to talk to me,' how is that engaging?" Jones asked.

Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Thursday the province is unlikely to follow Ontario's lead.

Ganley said she has been in contact with Knecht and other police departments to make sure they are following police guidelines.

A week before the new regulations were unveiled in Ontario, that province's Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi said:  "We as a government stand opposed to any arbitrary, random stops by police simply to collect information when there are no grounds to do so."

While Jones defended street checks in Edmonton, he did not rule out putting limits on how long information collected from them is stored.

"Absolutely, that's something we're going to look at," he said about the rules governing collection of data and storage.


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