People who want to be exceptional do exceptional things. A city that aspires to be exceptional must follow the same principle. A city that aspires to be exceptional does not over-police so that it looks more like harassment of ordinary citizens, as happens in particular in low-income neighbourhoods to the point where the number of young males of colour police have in their records exceeds the actual number living in the city.
Questioning people in public without apparent cause, and especially young Black and brown males, is one significant piece of information that turned up in an investigation by the Toronto Star into police practice. Also called street checks or ‘carding’, this practice has resulted in part in a thorough cataloguing of young males of colour in this city, according to statistics acquired by the Star.
This would suggest that every single male youth of colour in Toronto is ‘known to police’. Would that include all those young scholarship winners and achievers whose successes grace the pages of Share each week? Black people comprise just over eight per cent of Torontonians, but 25 per cent of those carded by Toronto police.
But what has been the price of this method of handling crime and crime prevention? For one, it has resulted, in large part, in an antagonistic relationship between young men of colour and the police.
So when, as inevitably happens, police call for information regarding criminal activity, they come up against a wall of silence. Why would anyone wish to confide in a group of people who on any other day would be a source of stress, or worse, abuse?
This method of crime fighting is tired. And it is unexceptional.
We know that police have community programs aimed at building trust among residents and, especially, youngsters, and aimed at turning youth away from getting into dangerous gangs or otherwise entering a life of crime. However, these efforts are always undermined when at the same time every young male of colour is considered suspect, or a potential criminal.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair defends this carding program, which is most heavily implemented in those same low-income neighbourhoods that have also been designated as crime hotspots, yet carding has been challenged as being in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
To appease the Police Services Board request for more accountability regarding this practice, a new stopgap program of handing out receipts to persons being carded is in the works. A police department that wants to be exceptional does not try to ameliorate the situation by handing out receipts to those who are stopped.
Although it has not yet been put into action, the form that has been designed for this purpose, set to begin use in July, is being called too vague since it does not set out all the information that is gathered from those who are stopped. It has also been suggested that some of the headings for stops such as “general investigation” and “community engagement” are too vague in their meaning or purpose.
They raise questions. General investigation of what or whom? What kind of community engagement? We know what kind of community engagement has for decades been objectionable to the youth who are stopped and questioned while just going about their business.
There is no question that high crime areas, especially as they are concentrated in the pockets of poverty in the city, have to be monitored. We all want safe neighbourhoods. We want the police to apprehend those individuals who are breaking the law and putting themselves and others in danger. But there have to be methods of maintaining public safety without making victims of young people who are just going about their business, or as it is sometimes called, ‘living while Black’.