By ARNOLD A. AUGUSTE
The police practice of stopping and questioning Black youth in the community, especially in the so-called priority neighbourhoods, and recording their personal information was strongly criticized in last week’s Share editorial. And a comment by Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, which was seen as condoning this behaviour, was more than we could take. So we called him out on it. We said he had some explaining to do.
To his credit, he responded promptly.
Sloly had been quoted as saying that “the primary use of that information is in case there is a criminal offence that happens down the road and that information might be relevant to solving it or in case that information might help us to identify suspects that are taking part in criminal activity.”
What it seemed to say to us – and to others who we have heard from – is that personal information on Black youth is being collected and put into a police database even if they had not committed an offence just so that the police will have their information handy in case they did commit an offence later on.
Not so, insists Sloly. He said that people are stopped if they are observed by the police to be acting in a suspicious manner or in response to complaints. At that point, during an investigation, personal information will be collected.
But the facts tell a different story. A recent investigation by the Toronto Star concluded that a disproportionate percentage of those stopped and documented by police were Black youth. Were all of these people looking or acting suspiciously? And how is one determined to be acting suspiciously? We already know that many young Black people, especially young men, try to avoid the police, maybe for the simple reason that they expect to be stopped and questioned. Would their efforts to avoid the humiliation of being stopped and searched be seen as suspicious by the police? Would their nervousness at being stopped and questioned be seen as being suspicious?
They may not be ‘acting’ suspicious; they may be ‘reacting’ to the presence of the police who seem to always regard them as suspicious.
While defending the practice, which has been called ‘carding’ by some, Sloly admitted that a lot more work needs to be done to gain the trust of the community and that, in an on-going and wide- ranging review of the entire Police Service, efforts will be made to ensure that interaction between the police and members of the community is conducted in a fair and respectful manner.
Regardless of how respectful any such interaction is, however, the mere fact that a police officer may demand, request or otherwise seek to obtain personal information from someone who is just going about his legitimate business, is going to be problematic.
It is not that long ago we were protesting against the apartheid regime in South Africa whose police arbitrarily stopped and searched Blacks. In fact, it has been said that regime used as its example the Canadian government’s documenting of our Native peoples.
So, there is a history here and one that stings.
There is also a long history of mistrust between Blacks and the police in North America and while the Police Service here in Toronto has made great strides over the years, there is still a wide gulf to bridge. This practice isn’t helping.
To add insult to injury, the Toronto Police Service Board is calling on the police to provide a receipt to persons stopped and questioned which will document the event. As one young man, who was quoted in a newspaper article last week, said of the receipts, it will only mean more paper in his wallet but he will still be stopped.
He is right. This doesn’t make sense. How is that receipt going to help him except to remind him constantly that he is now ‘known to police’ and his information is in the police database although he has not committed a crime?
What the Board needs to do is press the police to speed up the review Sloly talked about with the aim of finding better ways to interact with members of the community.
The senior police officers may mean well. But the real challenge is where the frontline officers meet and interact with the public. That is where the work needs to take place. It is one thing to order cops to follow new policies, but having them buy in to those policies instead is where the real success will be realized.
It is also important for members of the community to understand that the primary role of the police is law enforcement. When police officers come into a neighbourhood, even if it is to play basketball with area youth or to participate in other fun events, they are on the job.
The relationships they build with members of the community have many benefits. They help area youth to become more comfortable around the police and the police officers to become more comfortable interacting with Black youth.
The interaction may also help erase some of the mistrust between the police and members of the community who then may be more inclined to cooperate with police during criminal investigations.
But, at the end of the day, the police officer is in that community to do police work. Once we understand and accept that, and once the frontline officers understand that all Black youth are not criminals and refrain from treating them as such, we will be on our way to gaining that mutual respect that Sloly talked about.