Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders defends lawful carding after mayor objects

Toronto's police chief says he does not support allowing officers to randomly stop citizens, but stopped short of saying he agrees with Mayor John Tory's call to end the controversial practice of carding.

Mayor John Tory, numerous critics want end of controversial practice

Toronto's police Chief Mark Saunders says he does not support allowing police officers to randomly stop citizens. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Toronto's police chief says he does not support allowing officers to randomly stop citizens, but stopped short of saying he agrees with Mayor John Tory's call to end the controversial practice of carding.

"When we do it right, it's lawful," Mark Saunders told CBC's Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on Thursday morning. "When we do it right, it enhances public safety."

Carding allows police officers to stop and question people to gather information — intelligence that is then stored indefinitely in a secret database. Critics have blasted it for targeting young black men and others from ethnic minorities.

But Saunders said people are defining carding in different ways. Many say it involves the random stopping of citizens.

"I've said from day one, I will not support random stopping of anybody," Saunders said, reiterating that he has been opposed to random stops since he started his term as police chief in recent weeks. "I will not do that and I do not tolerate that."

The police have stopped randomly stopping people on the street, he said.

He said that as long as the practice is evidence-led, it helps to increase community safety.

For example, police may receive numerous phone calls reporting suspicious behaviour in the stairwells of certain buildings during specific times. Police can act on that information and visit those areas during those times, he said. They may then question anyone they find there.

"Our officers will know why they're stopping people," he said. "It takes random out of the equation."

This intelligence-led questioning "does justify our actions" he said, adding that the community is asking for that.

He has said it is a key part of his police force's strategy when it comes to dealing with gangs in the city.

He rejected claims that it's impossible to practise carding without random stops. "That's incorrect," he said.

Carding 'eroded public trust,' mayor says

Tory recently called for an end to carding. He said the system has "eroded the public trust," and he plans to go before Toronto's police board on June 18 and call for the practice to be eliminated.

When asked if he agreed with Tory's assessment that it eroded the public trust, Saunders skirted the question.

"I work for the oversight. The oversight will tell me what to do," Saunders said, adding that they work together and will fix whatever problems are out there. The mayor is responsible for making sure that the police force protects the public in a lawful way, he said.

Saunders also faces a court challenge against the practice.

Knia Singh, a Toronto law student, says he has been repeatedly carded by the police due to his race. He claims that carding and the retention of personal information through it are illegal, as it is is a breach of rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Saunders said Singh has the right to take his matter before the courts, and declined to comment further on Singh's claims against carding.

He did, however, answer a pre-recorded question from Singh, who asked, "What would you do to hold your officers accountable when you find out that they have violated people's charter rights?"

The police have a process for dealing with that, he said, which they've used in the past and will continue to use in the future.

Police has taken steps to improve 

The police are also working to establish a system where they don't just give people a business card after an interaction with them, but provide them with an official receipt.

He has also taken information recorded from such stops "off the grid," and said it cannot be used for background checks. However, the law prevents him from destroying those records, Saunders said.

He said he understands the anger some Torontonians are feeling, and said the police force has started comprehensive training so officers better understand the sensitivity around these interactions. He feels that the issue will be resolved through "time and legitimacy."

"We understand that in the past we needed to do it better," he said, saying the force has taken steps to improve it including the training, not having a quota system and having increased oversight.

"Are we there yet? No. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Are we taking the steps to get there? Yes we are."