Police Violence in Toronto

“Random stops of people who are not suspected of having knowledge of any specific crime under investigation is not a ‘recognized policing reason,’ except for military police in occupied territories.”

Peter Rosenthal

The racialized, working-class community of Jane and Finch in the northwest area of the city of Toronto, especially residents of the high rise public housing and private rental buildings, have long complained about police brutality and racist policing. Glen Stuart, a former lawyer with the Community and Legal Aid Services Programme at York University’s law school, states, “Concerns around policing were one of the focal points (25 years ago) and, unfortunately, they’ve never really gone away.” Afrikan Canadian youth have borne the brunt of police repression from 31 Division (local police station).

In a 2011 report Jane-Finch Youth Speak Out, a group of racially diversed youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine years made known their views of the behaviour of cops in their neighbourhood:

“When speaking about police, most youth were critical. Youth spoke from personal experience or what they heard from peers. They felt that rather than being helpful, police sometimes make things worse by interrogating people, invading their privacy and not treating community residents with dignity.”

Since 2006, the police have intensified their presence in the Jane and Finch area as a result of their Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS). TAVIS bills itself as “an intensive, violence reduction and community mobilization strategy intended to reduce crime and increase safety in our neighbourhoods.”

However, the intensive and pervasive nature of the cops’ indiscriminate stopping and questioning of young people in Jane and Finch and other socially marginalized neighbourhoods across Toronto makes TAVIS similar to the “military police in occupied territories.”

Jane and Finch residents have pushed back against the over-policing and violent activities of the cops from 31 Division as well as the officers associated with TAVIS. On December 10, 2008, a number of residents and groups organized a march against police brutality in this local community. They expressed their outrage in a letter addressed to police Superintendent Christopher Wright:

“The attitude and actions of officers including TAVIS towards our community have strained the relationship.  Mothers are now scared to let their children out of the house for fear of violence and harassment.

Our youth are currently more scared of the police violence than they are of ‘street’ related issues. The over policing of this community has led to increased levels of targeting, harassment, racial profiling and created a fear of persecution amongst residents. The ‘serve and protect’ credo of the police is not felt in our community.”

The aggressive behaviour of cops from 31 Division crossed the proverbial line to such an extent that the Afrikan Canadian deputy police chief andreliable apologist of police violence Peter Sloly declared, in February 2011,  that some of them “don’t deserve to wear the uniform because of their attitudes and their actions.” Sloly was probably doing the “good cop” routine, which likely won him few fans among “the wretched of the earth” who live, on a daily basis, with the “siege mentality” created by the cops.

A recently released study has exposed the continued widespread presence of police violence by way of carding (a stopping, questioning and documenting procedure used in non-criminal encounters) by the Toronto Police Service. The cops stop, question and document information such as the person’s name, address, location of the contact, close friends (associates), tattoos or distinct marks on the body, aliases or street names, date of birth, race or colour, and time of encounter. Individuals have the legal right to not give the requested information to the cops.

However, racialized, working class youth, particularly males, are aware of the possibility of harm coming to them from such an action. They can easily call forth previous incidences of police violence that were triggered by knowingly asserting their civil and human rights.

This community-based research project was financed by the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) in the area patrolled by 31 Division. The TPSB wanted to determine how its carding or Community ContactsPolicy of April 2014 was being implemented in communities that register high levels of police presence, and residents’ complaints about aggressive over-policing.

This new carding policy was trumpeted as “a proactive rights-based approach” that is “fundamental to community-based policing” and would ensure that the cops are being “trained and supervised” to “gather and retain legitimate information” on the carded members of the public. The TPSB adopted this policy in April as a result of vigorous public opposition to racial profiling of Afrikans, and their over-representationamong the people carded across Toronto.

Some of the keys elements of the rechristened carding regime include: issuing receipts that confirm carded interactions with the cops; explaining to the carded person the reason for being stopped, questioned, and documented; informing the person that he/she has the right to not participate in the information extraction process; person may only be stopped for public safety reasons; and ensuring that the process is consistent with the human rights code in Ontario and the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Many members of the public and community groups, especially Afrikan individuals and organizations were opposed to this “enlightened” policy that replaced the “208 cards” with the Orwellian-sounding “Community Safety Notes” (carding by another name). They called for an end to carding, because it was still seen as a violation of the rights of the carded person under Ontario’s human rights code as well as the Charter.

Even the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights CommissionBarbara Hall was “deeply concerned about what remains of the practice [of carding] and its impact on the African Canadian community, particularly young Black men.”

There are legitimate concerns in the Afrikan community and among police accountability advocates about racist policing in racialized working-class communities. After years of denial by former police chiefs and police union bosses as well as elected and appointed officials, racial profiling of Afrikans by the cops in Toronto is now a well-documented fact.

The organizing and the mobilizing activities of the local Afrikan community since the 1970s, and the pivotal role of the Black Action Defense Committee in the late 1980s and the 1990s were responsible for firmly entrenching the racialized violence of the cops on the public radar as well as the public policy agenda of the municipal (Toronto) and provincial (Ontario) levels of government.

However, the report on carding in the Jane and Finch community between June and August 2014 confirmed the fears and forecasts of opponents of carding. 71% of the carded individuals in the survey were Afrikans. An alarming 85.5% of the survey’s participants who were carded were not given a reason for being questioned and documented, and were also not given a receipt. 65.5% of the carded respondents believed that they did not have the right to walk away from the encounter with the police.

Essentially, the experiences of carded individuals are a clear indication that the TPSB’s new policy is being grossly violated and treated with utter contempt by the cops from 31 Division and TAVIS. The police continue to maintain its stance as an occupation army in the Jane and Finch community.

The use of carding as an investigative tool is so problematic that in July 2004 Superior Court Justice Harry LaForme of the Toronto Regionaired his considered reservation about the practice in dismissing serious criminal charges against Khamidi Ferdinand:

“One reasonable – although very unfortunate – impression that one could draw from the information sought on these 208 cards – along with the current manner in which they are being used – is that they could be a tool utilized for racial profiling.

While I am not at all deciding that this is the case – and it is not necessary for me to do so – I make my observations only to express a profound note of caution.  If the manner in which these 208 cards are currently being used continues; there will be serious consequences ahead.  They are but another means whereby subjective assessments based upon race – or some other irrelevant factor – can be used to mask discriminatory conduct.  If this is someday made out – this court for one will not tolerate it.”

The community-based organization Jane Finch Action Against Povertyrejects police violence against residents and calls attention to the social marginalization of this racialized, working-class community:

“The actual situation in Jane-Finch is as follows: We have the highest incident of improper police “carding” and criminalization of residents in the country. Our community has the largest proportion of low income and lower median household incomes levels in the City. We have very high levels of poverty, unemployment and sub-standard housing and services and one of the highest proportions of racialized people and immigrants in Toronto.”

The community of Jane and Finch and other racialized, working-class community have the capacity to put an end to the carding of residents. They can only checkmate this form of police violence by way of 24/7 community organizing and resistance campaigns that will effectively educate, mobilize, empower, and support the youth and other segments of the community to assert their right to not share personal information with the police during carding encounters.

Many members in economically marginalized communities such as Jane and Finch are not aware of their legal right to not divulge information to the police, or are afraid of the negative consequences of remaining silent. Therefore, the campaign will have to  develop a roster of lawyers to defend carded individuals who get entangled with the criminal (in)justice system, support people in suing the police, carry out “Know Your Rights” educational programmes, create a cop watch programme,and other initiatives to end carding and fight other forms of police repression in Jane and Finch.

The Jane Finch Action Against Poverty has been the most consistent organization fighting police violence in the community. It could call an organizing meeting and invite progressive student clubs, graduate and undergraduate students’ unions, campus trade unions, and faculty association at the nearby York University as well as progressive organizations throughout Toronto to put their resources behind a community-based campaign to end carding and police brutality.

By organizing against police violence, they might use it as the basis to take on other social issues that are of relevance to the lives of the people. If the people are able to win victory on the issue of carding, it might build their resolve and confidence to take on other structural or oppressive economic and social issues.

We need to heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in not approaching the struggle to end police or state violence like it is a spectacle or a spectator sport:

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it… History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, and an educator.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator, organizer and writers. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.