Reevely: 'Carding' is illegal and bad policing, province's ombudsman says

Stopping people on the street to ask them who they are and what they’re up to is both against the law and bad policing, Ontario’s ombudsman said in a news conference Tuesday.

André Marin doesn’t have any authority over police forces. But he’s been both a Crown prosecutor in Ottawa and head of the provincial Special Investigations Unit, which investigates some forms of police misconduct. As he released his annual report, he criticized the practice that’s steadily called “carding.”

The idea is that police patrolling high-crime neighbourhoods ask people on the street for ID and write down their names, who they’re with and what they’re doing. Over time, they build up a big database of people’s habits that can help them solve crimes.

In proportion to their numbers in the general population, the police stop a lot more dark-skinned people than white ones. People who get carded can end up with records that come up in background checks. You aren’t required to tell the police anything at all in these situations, but they don’t tell you that. Sometimes you get in trouble for giving a hotheaded police officer lip over it.

“I’ve at all times thought that carding was an illegal measure. I think it’s wrong,” Marin said. “Whatever benefit the police get out of it is overwhelmed by the breach of individual liberty involved in carding.”

He compared it to the way police behaved in Toronto all the way through G20 meetings several years ago. They rounded up whole blocks full of people on no particular charges, including residents who just happened to emerge from restaurants and stores when protesters were passing by.

In Ottawa, about 20 per cent of the people carded by police are black, even if black people make up only about six per cent of the population. Fourteen per cent of the people carded here are recorded as “Middle Eastern,” though people with that ancestry are less than five per cent of Ottawans.

The Ottawa police are in the middle of reviewing their use of carding — they call it “street checks” here — and revealed preliminary figures to the city’s police services board Monday evening. It’s helped solve crimes and find additional suspects, Chief Charles Bordeleau said.

Lots of things would help us catch bad guys. Warrantless searches of people’s homes, say. Done properly, warrantless searches would be fine. But based on our historical experiences with warrantless searches, we make the police get warrants. Similarly with asking people on the street to show their papers, please.

The police board asked Bordeleau no questions about what Ottawa’s carding review has found so far or where it’s going. It’s a marked contrast to what’s happened in Toronto, where Mayor John Tory, under pressure, has called for an end to carding because it’s toxic to the police’s relationships with a lot of people they’re supposed to offer protection to. Leave aside the prospect of outright racism, even.

Focusing on “high-crime areas” means the same people get stopped again and again and again when they’ve never done anything wrong. Information dug out of the Ottawa police by the Citizen’s Shaamini Yogaretnam shows that one particular person in Ottawa was carded 30 times last year. Thirty times.

Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi has ordered a provincial-level evaluation of carding, which is what prompted the Ottawa police’s review: they want to have a good handle on what they themselves do before they go saying anything to the province. Naqvi has pre-emptively ruled out a ban on the practice but does want standards so that each police force in Ontario doesn’t make up its own rules, or fail to. The Ottawa police have no policy on the practice. They just do it.

“I’ve at all times found that police issues are the hardest to move the government on on account of the very strong police unions,” Marin said Tuesday. He’s not beloved by Ontario’s police but he’s far enough into his career that he doesn’t have to care. (Also at that press conference he said he’s looking forward to the Special Investigations Unit’s charging police with obstruction of justice for interfering with evidence when they know the SIU is on its way to a scene.) He can tell the truth as he sees it.

The truth about carding, as it’s actually practised, is steadily ugly. It’s good to hear Marin calling it out.

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Highlights from the ombudsman’s annual report

For a watchdog known for his bark, André Marin’s annual report was pretty tame. Much of his most explosive material, he released earlier in special reports on things like Hydro One’s lazy and self-interested billing practices. But he’s not silent. The ombudsman’s office dealt with a large number of one-off complaints but also several larger-scale problems.

Ontario’s jails rely on solitary too much

Complaints about misuse of “segregation” in jails increased by half over the previous year. Marin found some inmates were kept in solitary for months without legally required reviews of their status. Too many inmates were also put in segregation when they were sick, because their jailers didn’t know what else to do with them. Toronto’s superjail, the Toronto South Detention Centre, has an infirmary equipped for overnight stays but many sick inmates couldn’t use it because it wasn’t staffed properly.

More support for certain breast-cancer patients

The government wouldn’t pay for a chemotherapy drug after a woman’s breast cancer recurred a second time, even if science suggests it’s an effective remedy for third and even fourth bouts with the disease. Marin said his office persuaded the health ministry to cover the drug for all women in that situation for the next three years to make its own evaluation of how well it works.

Fallout from Everest College

The government ordered the closure of the private career college in February for fear it would soon go bust. Marin’s office dealt with 261 complaints from students and staff left in the lurch — told they couldn’t get tuition back when they actually could, for instance.

What’s next for Marin

The ombudsman is in an extension period after the end of his second five-year term. The Liberal government has invited applications for his successor, with this extension ending Sept. 14; Marin himself has applied for a third term but wouldn’t talk about how that process is going.

On the eve of the expiry of his term in May, Marin launched a Twitter campaign to pressure the government to reappoint him, something he acknowledged Tuesday might not have been a great idea.

“Things were happening fast that night. The more you’re on Twitter — it’s like a highway, the more you’re on the highway, you’ll be able to have fender-benders,” he said. “We all make mistakes and it’s water under the bridge at this stage.”