Police street checks: Valuable investigative tool or racial profiling?

Critics say the Edmonton police practice of randomly stopping and documenting people on the street unfairly singles out some ethnic groups. But police say it's not racially-based and key to reducing crime.

While Edmonton police defend ‘carding,’ critics say random checks target aboriginal, other racialized groups

Mayor Don Iveson on street checks

8 years ago
Duration 1:45
The mayor responds to allegations police are asking non-white people for I.D.

Robert L'Hirondelle speaks openly about his past problems: leukemia, alcohol, homelessness, an assault conviction.

But these days, he's sober, stays out of trouble and can often be spotted performing in downtown Edmonton.
Robert L'Hirondelle, 22, claims Edmonton police 'target me.' (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

That's where he recently bumped into a pair of patrol officers. He shared the story with them of how he turned his life around.

One officer praised L'Hirondelle. The other began questioning how he made his money.

"I was kind of put on the spot, so I kind of froze up. And I have an anxiety disorder and my anxiety started to kick in," recalled L'Hirondelle, 22.

As a young aboriginal male who had problems with addiction and now is doing well for himself, police target me.- Robert L'Hirondelle 

The officer asked for his identification to run his name through the police computer system for warrants.

"He told me: 'Oh I just want to put a note in our system that we ran into you and that you're doing good. Are you OK with that?'"

L'Hirondelle wasn't OK with that. He exercised his legal rights and said no. By law, unless someone is under arrest, that person is not required to answer questions or provide identification.

The officer persisted but his partner pulled him away. The incident still haunts L'Hirondelle.

"As a young aboriginal male who had problems with addiction and now is doing well for himself, police target me," claimed L'Hirondelle.

"I literally try to hide myself from police when I'm down here. I shouldn't have a reason to be fearful of these officers, but I'm literally scared to come downtown."

Tens of thousands stopped randomly

Each year, Edmonton police randomly stop, question and document tens of thousands of citizens who are not under arrest. It's a practice police call street checks, but others know it as carding.

Figures provided by Edmonton police show between 2011 and 2014, officers carded an average 26,000-plus people per year, a total of 105,306 over four years.

Police insist street checks help solve and prevent crimes. Acting Staff Sgt. Brent Dahlseide, in charge of downtown foot patrols, said the stops aren't motivated by race.

"It's not who. It's the behaviour," or the location, said Dahlseide.

"I know we don't racially profile. I would be very taken aback if somebody came up and told me that my members who I'm putting out on the street daily were conducting their business in a racial manner. It would really surprise and shock me."

Dahlseide said street checks might be misperceived as racial profiling based on preconceived notions about police, or when more checks are conducted in an area heavily populated by one visible minority group.

Asked about L'Hirondelle's case, he said the officer could have been checking for an outstanding warrant, so it wouldn't come back to "bite him [L'Hirondelle] in the butt."

If there was a warrant, the situation might simply have been cleared up with a promise to appear in court, and L'Hirondelle would have been allowed to carry on his way.

'Moving towards a police state'

When he was younger, Lewis Cardinal said he remembers being stopped regularly by Edmonton police and being aggressively questioned walking to and from work.

Now, Cardinal, vice-chair of the Aboriginal Commission for Human Rights and Justice, said he thinks those kind of random checks are happening even more, as the urban aboriginal population explodes and many on low income live in high-crime areas.

Lewis Cardinal, vice-chair of the Aboriginal Commission for Human Rights and Justice, believes random police checks are happening more: 'We are being stopped, questioned.' (Andrea Huncar/CBC)
"It seems to us we are moving more towards a police state," Cardinal said.

"We are being stopped, questioned: 'Where is your identification, who are you, what are you doing here.'"

Cardinal stressed he has overall respect for police who put their lives in harm's way. But when human rights are overlooked, questions need to be raised, he added.

I know for a fact that information from street checks helped link an individual to either our victim or to a subject where we needed to help identify the persons involved.- Acting Staff Sgt. Brent Dahlseide

Cardinal said it's not uncommon to hear someone say they were "stopped for being aboriginal" even though the person was just minding his or her own business. Outreach workers in some immigrant communities told CBC it is happening to them as well.

"They feel that they are being targeted because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin," said Cardinal.

"There's a lot more aboriginal people and people of color being stopped than anyone else. So that speaks a lot to profiling."

Street checks 'invaluable' for probes: police

In fact, there are no hard police statistics to back that up.

Not every street check is documented. But those generating "notable information" are recorded, including information such as gang affiliations, a description of the individual and race, said Dahlseide.

Dahlseide said police don't keep tallies broken down by ethnicity for people who are street checked. While it may be difficult to prove statistically, Dahlseide said he's confident street checks are "invaluable" for solving crime.

"I know for a fact that information from street checks helped link an individual to either our victim or to a subject where we needed to help identify the persons involved," said Dahlseide, who spent four years with the city homicide unit.

When a subject's name is searched,  all files associated with that person come up, he noted.

"One street check may be something we have used for the furthering of five or six different types of investigations," Dahlseide said.

Critics say there's no proof that street checks help to reduce crime.

"There's no evidence that really demonstrates that doing all this street checking is really preventing crime in any way," said Cardinal.

Street checks under review in Ontario

In Ontario, street checks are under review after a firestorm set off by data confirming people of colour are carded disproportionately. The issue gained prominence by the personal account of black freelance journalist Desmond Cole, who revealed police had interrogated him in random checks more than 50 times.

"You know being a member of a minority is not a crime and it's not a reason to be suspicious of anybody," said D'Arcy DePoe, past president of the Alberta's Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association.

"If you start with the assumption that a group of black kids is up to no good — well then you're going to card that group of black kids. But would the same group of white kids in the same neighbourhood get carded? The statistics tell us that minorities get carded, let's find out why. "

Adrian LaChance is manager of the Running Thunder Dancers aboriginal group. He served time in prison for drug trafficking, and doesn't mind being stopped for ID.

"I think, 'Yeah, cool, right on.' They're looking out for the best interests of  the community and I'm OK with that," he said.

"They have a job to do — they're looking out for each and every one of us — and for people saying they're just focusing only on aboriginal people, it's nonsense. They have a job to do — they can feel that energy that people give off if they're trying to hide stuff."

But L'Hirondelle said random street checks on aboriginals remain a concern for him, which is why he's speaking out.

"I just really want to let people know that if it's happened to me, it [could] happen to you."