(Photo: Kelly Roche/QEW South Post/file)
BY MATT SKOF
The provincial government is preparing to impose limits on an important proactive policing strategy commonly called street checks, or carding.
With Ontario’s police chiefs coming to the table late, critics such as criminal defense lawyers and interest groups dominate the debate and attempt to paint a picture of biased police officers targeting individuals – particularly minority groups.
Some criminal defense lawyers have gone so far as suggesting that police are unhappy with draft legislation because it both thwarts their lust for power and avoids accountability.
Inflammatory comments of this sort reflect an effort to infuse the dialogue with a sense of urgency.
The reality is that every interaction between a police officer and member of the public potentially engages multiple layers of accountability – internally within a police service and externally with independent groups such as the Special Investigations Unit or the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.
Contrary to what some interest groups want the public to believe, policing in Ontario exists within a multi-layered accountability structure – unlike any other occupation.
Over the last decade, provincial legislators and municipal leaders have vigorously endorsed the adoption of greater intelligence-based policing techniques.
In doing so, these political leaders and the community at large have sought to shift policing from a reactive to a proactive process, in that answering radio calls should be replaced, at least to some extent, by officers employing various skills to prevent crime before it happens.
Intelligence-based policing, as its name implies, requires police to gather data and engage more sophisticated systems to determine links or occurrences that align data with crime.
Police officers don’t start their shifts thinking they will target anyone in fulfilling their responsibilities on patrol – how a police officer spends his or her shift begins well before their watch even starts.
Police staffing and assignment decisions consider many issues, including but not limited to calls for police intervention, locations and time of crime, and anticipated problems based on gang-activity or other developing problems.
Simply put, assigning staff can be as simple as making certain that police assets are in areas of higher volume of work.
Patrol officers are also reminded of crime patterns – often as a result of public demand.
For example, if there is a pattern of break and enters in an industrial park or residential community late at night, the patrol officers assigned to that area are then tasked to be aware of behaviour consistent with that pattern of antisocial activities.
Anyone walking through an industrial park in the wee hours of the morning will attract attention from the patrol officers – whether that involves a person who is young or old, tall or short, white or black.
These stops all result from the patterns of activity and the demands for service by the residents, or business owners, in the area.
Aware that there has been a history of break-ins after midnight, the patrol officer asks herself, “why is this person walking through here at 2 a.m.?”
The patrol officer may engage the person by asking straightforward questions.
The need for street checks is grounded on an activity, event or community request that requires some level of heightened awareness for police in the area.
They are not, contrary to what critics urge the public to believe, a random act predetermined to showcase police authority – such a notion is unfounded.
Moreover, it strains credibility for criminal defense lawyers to claim that their clients are harassed or duped into providing information to police during street checks.
Persons who have had to retain criminal defense lawyers in the past seem to be well aware of their legal rights not to speak with police during street checks.
Ask any patrol officer and he or she will tell you that these “frequent fliers” are the first to walk away from police, yet the lawyers representing these individuals continue to suggest that police target their clients.
Police are required, by law, to document all interactions with the public – failure to do so can expose an officer to discipline from various levels of internal and external oversight; who is stopped is always anchored by data that identifies some nexus to suspicious activity.
In its creation of regulations to limit the practice of street checks, the Ontario government will not change the fundamental responsibilities of police officers to investigate and document suspicious behavior.
In practical terms, little will be accomplished by these changes – professional police will continue to work with their communities and respond to patterns of crime.
In the period following the 1999 Columbine High School murders in Littleton, Colorado, the debate in the policing community led to a higher level of tactical response to such events.
As police services across North America began to equip themselves at levels comparable to those who present danger to our citizens, debates about militarization emerged.
Today, the intelligence-based policing tactic of carding finds itself in a similar position.
The practice of carding can be polarizing – intelligence-based policing requires officers to ask questions in pursuit of information intended to predict and respond to crime.
In doing so, however, being called racist or biased is an unfair characterization of the professional women and men who serve our communities.
The noise around these inaccurate factors more often than not blocks out the necessary understanding of policy to ensure that our cities remain safe.
Matt Skof started his policing career in 1997 and was elected as the president of the Ottawa Police Association in 2012. He represents 2,000 professionals, both sworn and civilian members.