There was no broad-based public outcry about the discriminatory actions against Black people by Toronto police over a decade in Toronto’s version of ‘stop and frisk’. So-called street checks resulted in young Black men, especially, being stopped, questioned and their personal information placed in a police database at three times – or higher – the rate of the rest of the general public.
Years of advocacy by members of the community and the advancement of a class action lawsuit naming police executives and the Toronto Police Service Board was what it took to get changes to the police practice.
The consequence of the constant harassment, the aggressive manner and disrespect with which some police officers carried out these checks has been bitterness and resentment toward police. The reprehensible conduct of people entrusted to serve and protect the community towards a segment of the community has left a generation of Black men with considerable trauma.
While this process of carding was being carried out, White people, for the most part, were not impacted. The general population was little concerned since the focus of the police seemed to have been on others – mainly members of visible minority communities.
Yet, what we now understand is that police forces all across Canada have been keeping records on hundreds of thousands of people who have never committed any crime but who have in one way or another been entered into police records, whether they might have made a 911 call where there was a medical emergency or attempted suicide, were falsely accused, or otherwise had contact with police even when no law was broken.
In an era of growing generalized anxiety, these police records are now coming into play as they are being requested even for jobs that do not require what the police term vulnerable sector screening, such as jobs working with vulnerable people such as the frail elderly and children.
Many who have always had a sense of entitlement in this society now find they are lumped in with large numbers of a targeted minority group who have similarly committed no crime.
The outcome is chilling. But it is more than that, because just having one’s name in the police database can negatively affect prospects for livelihood well into the future unless an individual is willing to go to some lengths to have release of the information blocked.
Now that police forces are linking through such means as the Internet, the names and other information of such persons – close to half-a million – and mostly unknown to them, are finding their way into police databases all across Canada as well as being shared with U.S. authorities. Again, not that these individuals committed any crime.
In fact, someone who had been found guilty of a crime would have had more privacy protection under the laws of this country than someone who did not committed a crime but who for one reason or another has been documented by police. Such as innocent individuals who have been carded by police.
Privacy is not what it used to be and police contact with the public is not what it used to be. In the past, police might have responded to a disturbance call with a knock at one’s door and perhaps a brief admonishment. Now, they have to record every contact. There has been a tremendous shift in surveillance mechanisms since the attacks in the U.S. in New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 and the effects have been felt here as well.
This anxiety has filtered into the job market and increasingly job applications require police clearance. This appears to be moving toward something of a standard so that not only jobs such as teaching or paramedics now require it. Even trustees for the Toronto District School Board are giving consideration to whether parents who would volunteer to accompany classes on school outings should be required to have police clearance.
Last year, TPS received 17,000 requests for clearance documents.
To paraphrase the well-known quote by German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller, “when they came for all the young Black men no one from the privileged mainstream spoke up, now they are coming for those in the mainstream”.