StarMetro Toronto - - BIG OPINIONS - Martin Regg Cohn

Politi­cians have long played the law and or­der card — cul­mi­nat­ing with card­ing.

The dis­cred­ited prac­tice of card­ing — where po­lice ques­tion in­no­cent peo­ple with­out any rea­son­able rea­son, jot­ting down those pri­vate de­tails on mil­lions of con­tact cards en­tered into their data­bases — was fi­nally banned in 2017 by the last Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. Be­lat­edly.

Will card­ing make a come­back un­der Premier Doug Ford in the new year?

Given the bizarrely dis­mis­sive way in which Ford’s Tories dumped an im­por­tant new re­port by Jus­tice Michael Tul­loch — mid-af­ter­noon on New Year’s Eve — it’s hard not to won­der and worry.

For years, po­lice chiefs and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers de­fended the in­de­fen­si­ble, even when in­ef­fec­tive. They pro­claimed card­ing to be a vi­tal tool for in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing data­bases that help solve crimes — with­out any data back­ing up their claims.

The judge con­cedes that like many peo­ple he also mis­un­der­stood the dif­fer­ence be­tween ran­dom card­ing and fo­cused street checks — where po­lice have a de­fined in­ves­tiga­tive pur­pose that can yield ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence.

Against that back­drop of con­tin­u­ing con­fu­sion — by po­lice, politi­cians, the press and the pub­lic — Tul­loch sug­gests the 2017 reg­u­la­tions be re­in­forced with greater clar­ity. No one wants to hand­i­cap cops pur­su­ing crim­i­nals, but nor should any­one con­flate point­less checks of in­no­cent peo­ple — when there is no crime be­ing in­ves­ti­gated — with le­git­i­mate lines of in­quiry that solve crimes.

Over the years, a con­sen­sus has emerged across par­ti­san and ide­o­log­i­cal lines that card­ing was waste­ful and harm­ful, indis­crim­i­nate and yet dis­crim­i­na­tory, ran­dom and racist (be­cause it dis­pro­por­tion­ately and in­ap­pro­pri­ately af­fected Black peo­ple — any Black peo­ple by virtue of their skin colour). It di­verted re­sources that should have been fo­cused on com­mu­nity polic­ing, not com­mu­nity provo­ca­tion and com­mu­nal prej­u­dice.

Bow­ing to pub­lic pres­sure, Toronto po­lice sus­pended card­ing in 2015. Ac­ced­ing to po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum, then­premier Kath­leen Wynne brought in reg­u­la­tions to stop card­ing in 2017, com­mis­sion­ing Tul­loch to ex­am­ine the is­sue in greater depth.

To his credit, the judge has not only ed­u­cated him­self, but all of us about the nu­ances of card­ing ver­sus check­ing, and pro­vided ev­i­dence about the fail­ings of the for­mer ver­sus the po­ten­tial of the lat­ter. His rec­om­men­da­tions would help to clar­ify am­bigu­ous and poorly un­der­stood lan­guage in the ex­ist- ing ban, giv­ing po­lice of­fi­cers greater clar­ity — and there­fore con­fi­dence — to do their job with­out fear of wrong-foot­ing any­one.

But if Tul­loch has given us much needed per­spec­tive on polic­ing pow­ers, it now falls to politi­cians in power to fol­low up. They must heed his call for bet­ter word­ing — trans­lat­ing his rec­om­men­da­tions into ac­tion, not just words.

At a pub­lic brief­ing last week, one of the lawyers who worked with Tul­loch sug­gested diplo­mat­i­cally that the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment is “go­ing to move for­ward in good faith, but ul­ti­mately it’s up to them to de­cide.”

The of­fi­cial reaction so far is hard to fathom. Ford’s min­is­ter of com­mu­nity safety, Sylvia Jones, rel­e­gated her reaction to Twit­ter, mo­ments af­ter her of­fice dumped Tul­loch’s re­port, at 3:26 p.m. on Dec. 31.

In three quick tweets she tele­graphed her par­ti­san­ship about the po­lice file she over­sees as min­is­ter: “We will fix the po­lice leg­is­la­tion the Lib­eral’s (sic) broke. We are com­mit­ted to de­vel­op­ing leg­is­la­tion that works for our po­lice and for the peo­ple of On­tario. Jus­tice Tul­loch’s re­port will in­form this work.”

What are the Tories try­ing to say? That the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment “broke” polic­ing by ban­ning card­ing? Does the prom­ise to “fix the po­lice leg­is­la­tion” mean card­ing is back on the ta­ble, or some vari­ant of it?

This is not idle spec­u­la­tion. One of Ford’s first acts as premier was to de­ac­ti­vate an­other law that in­cluded ma­jor changes to polic­ing brought in by the Lib­er­als, in re­sponse to an ear­lier re­port from Tul­loch on po­lice over­sight — in­clud­ing im­prove­ments to the civil­ian Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tion Unit.

In a let­ter to the Toronto

Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion, the Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion of On­tario and the On­tario Pro­vin­cial Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion, Ford promised that the July sus­pen­sion of po­lice re­form­swas “just the first step to­ward de­liv­er­ing on our prom­ise to fix polic­ing leg­is­la­tion.”

That’s al­most the same word­ing used by his min­is­ter on New Year’s Eve, about Tul­loch’s more re­cent re­port, where she vowed once again to “fix the po­lice leg­is­la­tion.”

The pre­vi­ous Tul­loch-in­spired SIU law “hurts polic­ing ef­forts in the prov­ince and un­der­mines con­fi­dence in the po­lice,” Ford an­nounced last July, days af­ter tak­ing power. “On­tario’s hard­work­ing po­lice of­fi­cers de­serve to be treated with re­spect.”

Yes, po­lice de­serve our re­spect. But Ford’s self-pro­claimed “Gov­ern­ment for the Peo­ple” must also re­spect the peo­ple whom our po­lice are sworn to serve and pro­tect — and re­spect.

On the ev­i­dence, card­ing’s time is past, as Tul­loch has ar­gued so per­sua­sively in his lat­est re­port. On the ev­i­dence, this gov­ern­ment has lit­tle time for Tul­loch’s con­tri­bu­tions, given how un­per­suaded they were by his past ef­forts on po­lice over­sight, when they sus­pended the re­sult­ing re­forms.

The po­lice are not a play­thing for politi­cians. The mixed sig­nals over card­ing are yet an­other rea­son to be wary of the premier’s crass and dis­cred­itable ap­point­ment of an un­der­qual­i­fied crony, Ron Tav­erner, as his new OPP chief, pend­ing a probe by On­tario’s in­tegrity com­mis­sioner.

Be­ware the pol­i­tics of polic­ing.


Jus­tice Michael Tul­loch rec­om­mended that ran­dom street checks be banned, but the Ford gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse raises doubts they will change much.

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