Ottawa Police: Defying Logic and Misrepresenting Justice

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Between 2011 and 2014, the Ottawa police stopped and questioned 45,802 people who were not committing any crimes. The police call these interactions “street checks,” but they are also known as “carding.”  Those words conjure up notions of a totalitarian police state — and that’s not far from the truth.    

Carding occurs when police randomly stop and question people — for no real reason. The police officer collects information about the individual’s age, sex, address, names of their friends and details about where they are going and what they are doing. That information is then fed into a police database. This random questioning is not connected to any specific crime and the encounters are not really random at all - a disproportionate number people who are carded are visible minorities. 

The fact that visible minorities were the targets of police carding operations should not come as a surprise. It has long been known that police disproportionally target visible minorities for drug offences. And, a 2016 report, which was spurred by a human rights complainant alleging racial profiling, reviewed two years of traffic stops in Ottawa and found that visible minorities were pulled over more often by police despite the fact they were not committing more traffic offences.

There is no question that systemic racism continues to infect many of our public institutions. So, the Ontario government took action and introduced legislation designed to reign in the practice of carding and impose reporting requirements on the police. 

It seemed like a good idea motivated by good intentions.

But it was absurdly naive to think that a simple regulation could cure decades of systemic racism in Ontario’s police forces. Last month, the Ottawa Police Service released its first street check report and the numbers were shocking. The police claim they have only conducted seven street checks over the last year. Seven. 

The number is so low and such a departure from the tens of thousands of street checks conducted in the years prior that it defies believability.

There may be a number of reasons for the low number. The Ontario carding legislation has a number of loopholes that may be responsible for masking the continued extent of supposedly random street checks. The legislation does not require police to report any carding arising during traffic stops (and we know in Ottawa the police do love to stop racialized drivers for no reason). The legislation also gives the police free reign to card at will if they suspect a crime has been or will be committed. Perhaps the police are interpreting “suspect a crime has been or may be committed” very broadly to avoid oversight. Maybe they have just shifted carding to traffic stops. It is hard to tell because the police won’t release any data on how many times they have used the exceptions or the outcome of those interactions.

Legislation designed to fix the carding problem might have just driven it underground. 

But the potential damage runs deeper than mere questionable carding statistics. The Ottawa police have chosen to weaponize the new legislation for political gain, linking the decline in carding to a one-month increase in violent crime.

In the first month of 2018, there were 13 shootings in Ottawa. This is a high number — almost double the monthly average of shootings for 2017. There is no way to tell if the increased gun play is part of a trend or simply a statistical blip. But the police wasted no time in linking restrictions on carding, which they have long opposed, to the one-month increase in shootings.

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, blamed the “crippling” carding regulations for the “dramatic increase” in the number of shootings." Of course, Skof provided no evidence to back up his extraordinary claims. 

So, Skof’s logic is that we can reduce gun violence by devoting thousands of hours of police resources to randomly asking young black and Middle Eastern men who are not suspected of committing any criminal offences for their papers. It is an absurd position, which is not supported by even the most basic principles of logic.

Skof ignores that in 2014, 2015 and 2016 — when there were no carding rules and the Ottawa police carded tens of thousands of people — shooting incidents increased. 

Skof ignores that driving wedges between the police and racialized communities may actually harm investigations and disincentivize community co-operation.

 Skof ignores that the 13 shootings in January may be a statistical anomaly. 

Most importantly, Skof ignores that the police can still perform street checks — they just need to do it lawfully and report the interaction. If street checks were so important to solving gun crime, then maybe the police would have tried to do it more than seven times.

When the police misrepresent evidence and embrace a lack of transparency for political purposes, confidence in the administration of justice suffers.

But maybe Skof’s comments should not come as a surprise. The data on the frequency and impact of street checks following the new legislation may be murky and incomplete, but there is a long history of the police disregarding civil rights and turning a blind eye to systemic racism.

And that may prove Ontario’s new carding rules to be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.