Thinking About Racial Profiling and Carding in Canada

May 17, 2015

Want to learn about racial profiling and carding, but don’t know where to begin? Here’s a short introduction to get you started.

Because the Learn section of TalkRights features content produced by CCLA volunteers and interviews with experts in their own words, opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the CCLA’s own policies or positions and are only current to the date of publication which for this article was May 2015. For official publications, key reports, position papers, legal documentation, and up-to-date news about the CCLA’s work check out the In Focus section of our website.

Racial profiling is one of the most significant and complex issues facing law enforcement in Canada. It is a form of stereotyping and discrimination based on race. Racial profiling refers to the inappropriate targeting of racial and ethnic groups by police officers and other law enforcement officials. It exists when members of certain racial or ethnic group become subject to greater police attention than others.

The practice of racial profiling has long been recognized to exist in other western nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In Canada, specifically in Ontario, there have been numerous studies that have confirmed the differential treatment of racialized groups in the criminal justice system.

The Toronto Star newspaper has been actively tracking and publicizing concerns about racial profiling since 2002, and their series on policing and racial profiling, and the controversy surrounding it, served to push the issue of racial profiling into the forefront of public discussion. In 2010, the Toronto Star turned their attention to a new manifestation of the profiling issue and published articles showing the significance of the Toronto police carding practice.  Carding has become a short term for police street checks – the demand for and recording of an individual’s information without an arrest. The police rationale behind carding or what is known as ‘Community Contacts’ is to ensure public safety. Today, carding has become the forefront of discussions surrounding racial profiling and abuse of power that has been ongoing in Toronto and in Canada more generally. Analyzing the police-owned data obtained through a freedom of information request, the ongoing Toronto Star’s “Known to Police” series again showed that racialized people, particularly Black men and youth, are being stopped and checked at disproportionate rates (see the series here). For many, the police interaction with individuals, or ‘contacts’, were not based on consent or voluntary participation, but on a power imbalance between the police and individuals; particularly those who are young and racialized. This imbalance is based on the individual’s lack of information about their rights, fear, intimidation and threat.

In 2014, the Toronto Police Services Board drafted a new policy in an effort to monitor and oversee reforms to the current approach to Community Contacts. The Policy referred to disengagement, rights knowledge, and compliance with the Human Rights Code and the Charter.  The new carding policy limits the practice of carding to public safety investigations. Activists, community groups and organizations like the CCLA, have maintained that the practice of carding is violation of section 8 (everyone has the right to be secured against unreasonable search and seizure) and section 9 (everyone has the right not be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned) of the Charter. Specifically, they point out that the stopping, questioning, detaining and/or searching of a person and recording their information without their consent is unconstitutional. These advocates have heavily criticized the Toronto Police Service Board surrounding two key pieces missing from the new policy: (1) a definition of “public safety” (which defines when officers have the right to card) and (2) clear language that ensures community members are participating freely, and requiring police officers to inform members of the public of their right not to answer and their right not to stay following a carding interaction.

A recent survey, the Community Assessment of Police Practices (CAPP), of the carding (community contact) procedure shows that the majority of police officers, particularly in the Jane and Finch area, are not following the new policy.  The revised procedures mandate that police officers have a valid public safety reason for stopping individuals and require that they do not prolong the encounter merely to gather information to justify additional questioning. Over 40 percent of respondents to the survey between the ages of 15 and 29 years old reported being surrounded and intimidated during their last carding encounter. Of those carded, 137 of 404 felt that they could not walk away from the encounter nor were they given a valid reason for the stop.

Critics have said there is a vast disconnect between what the Toronto Police Service Board is trying to accomplish and what is actually happening on the ground between the police and racialized communities. The CAPP survey has reignited demands that the practice of carding be abolished altogether. However, in April 2015, the Toronto Police Services Board approved its revised carding guidelines.