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Judge finds confusion over street-check rules

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TORONTO—Police and the public need to be able to clearly distinguish between valid street checks by officers and random stops that should be abandoned altogether, a judge tasked with reviewing the province's regulations on the issue said Friday.

Justice Michael Tulloch said misinformation and confusion has taken root over the years, with the key distinction between street checks and a specific subset known as “carding” being lost.

As part of a 310-page report issuing recommendations for the provincial government, Tulloch called for police forces to stop random street checks in which a person's information is demanded, adding they disproportionately harm people from racialized communities, waste police resources, and do nothing to address crime.

But Tulloch argued street checks can have real investigative value as long as they take place when officers clearly have defined grounds to stop a person, ask them questions, and potentially retain identifying information.

“It is far better to use our limited resources to focus on individuals who are reasonably suspected of committing an offence rather than using valuable manpower to question thousands of people not reasonably suspected of anything,” Tulloch said at a news conference.

“The negative impact of random carding, particularly on indigenous, black, and other racialized communities, combined with the limited evidence that it is an effective police tool, brings me to only one logical conclusion and that is that random carding should end.”

Anti-racism and civil rights advocates welcomed the report, saying Tulloch's findings confirmed what marginalized communities had been reporting for decades.

But some questioned the premise that misinformation was to blame for the persistence of random street checks, particularly against racialized people.

“We're seeing a huge resistance from police departments actually,” said Raven Wings, a member of the group Black Lives Matter.

“This is something that our communities, as people of colour, black, and indigenous folks, need but we're struggling to actually get them to implement,” she noted.

“I feel like it's intellectually dishonest to say . . . 'Oh, there's just been confusion.' I don't think that's the case.”

Knia Singh, a lawyer and former Toronto mayoral candidate who has spoken out about his experiences with carding, urged the government to adopt Tulloch's recommendations.

“I think with public outcry and the comprehensiveness of this report, it will be difficult for them to turn a blind eye to it,” he said.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association expressed similar sentiment, saying the province would be “hard-pressed” to ignore such a clear and damning document.

“It's a stake in the heart of a dead, destructive policy—carding—and it's the definitive work on why it doesn't work, why it's ineffective, and why it should not be pursued by any police force in Canada,” said executive director and general counsel Michael Bryant.

The Progressive Conservative government said it plans to review the report as part an overhaul of policing legislation, and will be guided by Tulloch's findings.

Tulloch was asked to turn his attention to carding in 2017, months after the previous Liberal government made moves to eliminate what it described as systemic racism in law enforcement.

The rules say police must inform people that they don't have to provide identifying information during street checks, and that refusing to co-operate or walking away cannot then be used as reasons to compel information.

The aim was to end arbitrary stops, especially those based on race.

Tulloch said officers are justified in stopping people if they have clearly defined grounds to believe something is amiss, citing an example of an officer observing someone trying to pry open a window of a home in the middle of the night.

Such circumstances clearly would merit further questions, Tulloch said, noting the person either could be in the midst of committing a crime or trying to re-enter their home after getting locked out.

Officers should spell out their reasons for the stop to the person they are addressing, as well as in their report on the interaction, Tulloch noted.

He drew the line, however, at random stops, saying they have a detrimental effect on the relationship between law enforcement officials and the communities they serve.

“The long-term impact of randomly carding people in these communities is the alienation of entire communities from the police, and a resulting lack of trust in and co-operation with the police,” he argued.

Tulloch's support for non-random street checks was echoed by the Police Association of Ontario.

“It is most unfortunate that, over time, the intended purpose and its effectiveness as a crime prevention and solvency practice has been lost,” association president Bruce Chapman.

“That being said, the PAO has been clear that our members have never, and will never, support the practice of arbitrary detention or racially-biased stops.”

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