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Hamilton police stopped, ID'ed man collecting food for needy

A local Muslim youth leader says his experience being stopped and asked for ID by police is the kind of thing that makes building trust between young newcomers and law enforcement difficult. POl

Police say they were just doing their job.

Members of the NASR youth group with leader Kamran Bhatti in the centre, posing after this year's Ramadan food collection effort. Last year, the event led to being stopped by police. (Kamran Bhatti)

The police officers stopping him last year didn't realize Kamran Bhatti had a trump card up his sleeve. 

Bhatti, 33, is a leader with a Muslim youth group in Hamilton, and a prominent community leader who has worked alongside local police and RCMP to encourage the Muslim community to trust law enforcement.

But perhaps these officers didn't know about that when they stopped Bhatti and a group of Muslim teens on the Mountain during a Ramadan-inspired food drive last fall.

Since 2010, there are 9,000 people in Hamilton who have not necessarily done anything wrong but have been stopped by police, questioned and asked to show ID under the practice known as street checks. 

Unlike Bhatti, not all of them have photos of themselves with the police chief on their phone to put a quick end to the interaction. Not everyone he knows has a trusting relationship with police, and Bhatti worries about that.

There are young people who weren't necessarily born in Canada who have fled from countries where there is no trust with law enforcement.- Kamran Bhatti, NASR youth group leader

The experience stuck with him for what it could have been for the teens, without him there. 

"Here you've got a bunch of youth from various backgrounds; none of them are white," he said. "I thought, If I wasn't here today and these poor kids are on their own with the police, it's intimidating." 

​Bhatti will be among the community leaders at a meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at city hall, hosted by Coun. Matthew Green. The forum is aimed at collecting stories and feedback about the street check experience to share with provincial lawmakers, including Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi, who are working on new regulations for the practice across Ontario. 

When asked about the incident, Hamilton Police said they encourage homeowners and residents  to call police when they have doubts about why someone is in their neighbourhood, especially canvassing door-to-door. 

Police ask questions in order to figure out whom they're talking to, often finding that a complaint was "not what it appeared to be", said spokesman Const. Stephen Welton. 

Being stopped and questioned may not seem like a big deal if you've got nothing to hide. But the practice raises questions about Charter rights and privacy. Police say they take ID and record it in a database indefinitely for future reference, even if you haven't done anything wrong. Police data show the practice disproportionately impacts visible minorities.

Besides that, the experience may feel different depending on your context and your family or culture's relationship with police.

That's one of Bhatti's concerns. He's not sure if his experience was counted as a formal street check, but the similarities between what he knows of the practice and what happened to him lead him to say it should stop. 

"There are young people who weren't necessarily born in Canada who have fled from countries where there is no trust with law enforcement," he said. 

Being stopped while doing good doesn't exactly help, Bhatti said. 

'He asked for my information'

​Two officers stopped Bhatti and eight high-schoolers in a Mountain neighbourhood during Ramadan in 2014.

The group had advertised a food drive for the Good Shepherd nonprofit, and were going door-to-door to pick up cans. 

Members of the NASR youth group collected cans of food as part of a service project during Ramadan this year. In 2014, the effort led to being stopped by police. (Kamran Bhatti)
There was a mix of boys and girls in the group, from a mix of African, Arab, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds.

Bhatti was driving a car to help pick up some of the load when the bags of food got too heavy to carry. 

He was circling around for a pickup when he got a call from one of the youth. Two police officers had pulled up and were asking questions.

Bhatti arrived and got out of the car. 

The police officer turned to him. He told Bhatti they'd received a complaint about the group being in the neighbourhood.

"He asked for my information. I handed him my (business) card," Bhatti said. 

Despite the bags of food and the card identifying him as a youth leader, it wasn't the end of the interaction. 

The officer took his driver's license and business card, gave it to his partner to "run" the ID in the car, Bhatti said.

'When I pulled out those pictures'

Meanwhile, Bhatti pulled out his phone. 

"It was Ramadan. We'd actually had a breaking of the fast with the police chief," Bhatti said.

He still had photos on his phone of him with Chief Glenn De Caire and former Mayor Bob Bratina, breaking fast together.

"When I pulled out those pictures, the officer said, 'All right, wrap it up, get out of here.'"

"The tone changed very quickly," Bhatti said. 

Bhatti said he's been reluctant to repeat the story, because he enjoys a positive relationship with the police and with the chief. He likes teaching the youth he knows to work with police rather than against them. 

He was left feeling unsettled by the experience. 

"Whether or not there was a complaint from one of the neighbourhood members, I don't know," he said.

But it's also unclear to Bhatti whether, even after a complaint, the officers could have sized up the group and their obvious bags of food and sent them on their way without checking his ID. 

Welton said Hamilton Police couldn't specifically confirm or comment on the details of the incident. 

But the story "at the very surface was an example of police officers doing police work," he said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca@kellyrbennett

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