London

London's policing community responds to revised policing powers

The provincial government announced new restrictions Friday that granted police forces across Ontario higher enforcement powers. But only a day after, the Ford government retracted those powers following major outcry against the new rules by the public and police agencies.

Police now told to only stop people suspected of attending large gatherings

London Police Chief Steve Williams said, 'we will not be randomly stopping people," in a tweet Friday night following the provincial announcement to grant officers the right to stop and check anyone that is out. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

London's chief of police is promising his officers will be bias-free in their enforcement of the "re-focused" police mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19, while thanking the province for listening to widespread concerns that the initial plan was flawed.

The provincial government said Friday police could stop pedestrians and drivers at random to ask why they were not at home, and to ask for their address. 

After widespread refusal from police forces across Ontario to enforce the rules, including by the London Police Service, the Ford government walked back the mandate Saturday.

Police are now being instructed by the province to stop anyone if they're suspected of participating in an organized public event or social gathering.

"I have faith that our officers will continue to deliver exemplary service to the community as they do every day and that will include bias-free enforcement of the updated legislation," Chief Steve Williams said in a statement Sunday.

All along, police and city by-law officers have issued fines to people participating in large gatherings prohibited under the current stay-at-home order.

The revised rules, which do allow stops if police suspect individuals are congregating outside their households, remains troubling for lawyer and Police Services Board Vice Chair, Susan Toth. 

"How does one even begin to guess if someone is going to a large public event?" Toth said on CBC's Fresh Air on Sunday. "It doesn't really make any sense." 

Toth said what was shocking about the initial powers granted to police to conduct random checks is that there was no consultation with police services.

"To know that the solicitor general, with no concerns, or at least no apparent concerns to be fair, says 'We're going to allow this vast sweeping expansion of powers, without a second thought, without consultation I think is really troubling," Toth said.

Both the board and Chief Williams opposed random checks initially proposed by the province. They joined a chorus across Ontario who questioned the constitutionality of the decision. 

Similar to carding

Toth said the government failed to see how their initial plan could potentially pit police against community members, in particular racialized groups.

Toth was one of the Londoners who worked to end the practice of carding, or street checks, in 2017 which saw racialized people stopped without explanation more frequently than Caucasian drivers or pedestrians.

Susan Toth, vice chair of the London Police Services board, called the sweeping police powers first announced Friday by the the province’s Solicitor General, Sylvia Jones, very 'troubling.' (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Ontario passed a law that year which says police must explain why they're stopping and asking an individual for their information.

"I think there's a lot of frustration that [police] are having to fix the trust that keeps falling apart and then being undermined locally."

Going forward, both the police and the City of London said they will continue with an educational approach to enforcing the stay-at-home rules. 

"We will continue to focus on the 4 Es with regard to the police response to COVID-19: Engaging, Explaining, Educating and Enforcing," Williams said. 

"We recognize that the vast majority of Londoners have complied with the Order to-date, and we thank you for that." 

In a statement sent Saturday, the city said by-law officers will continue to address infractions and will continue to respond to complaints.

Williams said he also appreciates that the provincial government listened to concerns from both the public and police services. 

Susan Toth, the Vice-chair of London Police Services Board says not only was the provincial announcement of sweeping new police enforcement powers unwelcome, but there was little to no communication with police boards beforehand. 10:21

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Jabakhanji

Reporter/Editor

Sara Jabakhanji is a reporter with CBC News and graduate of Ryerson's School of Journalism. Sara has chased stories for the CBC across the province of Ontario in Toronto, Ottawa and is currently working with the CBC London bureau. She was born in Damascus, Syria and immigrated to Canada with her family when she was eight years old. Sara can speak fluent Arabic and is working on improving her French. She can be reached at: sara.jabakhanji@cbc.ca

With files from CBC's Fresh Air

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