Last week, the Wynne government announced draft regulations meant to herald in a new era in policing in Ontario. The proposed rules would mean the “end of carding,” Queen’s Park proclaimed. No longer would people be subject to discriminatory street checks by police.
I was immediately suspicious. How can a government regulate a practice it is eliminating? Frustration soon turned to dull, familiar rage as I read the new policies.
Carding is not over, and nothing in the draft regulations will prevent the status-quo discriminatory and disproportionate criminalization of black Ontarians.
On the face of it, the regulations would prohibit police from stopping and questioning people based on race (with significant exceptions). They also state that being present in a “high crime neighbourhood” cannot be the sole reason for a street check (this doesn’t scream progress to me). But let’s be honest: these rules are nothing new. There are already laws in existence meant to prevent racist policing.
Here’s what’s in the fine print: police are not to stop people based on their race, unless race is an important identifying factor in the police’s search for a particular individual. In other words, carding can still happen to you — if you fit a certain description. Sadly, this is almost always the excuse used to criminalize black people.
Also in the fine print: if an officer collects information from an individual in a manner that violates the regulation, there is no consequence to the officer, no recourse for the carded individual and the identifying information is retained in the police database. In other words, police can continue to card with impunity.
The policy will also do nothing to eliminate the abundant cache of identifying information that has been collected throughout the years — one of the central issues that activists have been seeking to solve.
In a laughably out-of-touch stipulation, the draft regulations dictate that subjects of a street check must volunteer to engage with the police. Again: this is not new. Currently, police are not able to force you to give them identifying information, or to interact with them barring an arrest. But it’s important to remember that these are interactions characterized by a significant power imbalance. Contact between a community that is hyper-aware of its criminalization and lack of access to justice (see Jermaine Carby or Andrew Loku, among others) and uniformed, armed individuals who rarely ever see any sort of penalty for wrongdoing cannot be said to be truly voluntary. Instead, for the vulnerable side of the equation, it is necessarily run through with fear.
Another shortcoming of the draft policy is that it doesn’t contemplate the Special Investigations Unit, which probes police conduct. The vast majority of cases sent to the SIU end up protecting officers and denying victims the chance to have their experiences adjudicated in a court of law — in other words, the unit tends to reinforce, rather than redress, anti-black racism in policing.
The SIU is also secretive in its dealings with civilians. Recently, I attempted to reach someone at the SIU to talk about their processes. They refused to respond to phone calls and emails. So I tried a Freedom of Information request. But the SIU claims they are exempt from FOIs, even though the law doesn’t seem to support this. After days on the phone being transferred from office to office, no government official could verify whether the SIU was exempt from FOIs, or where I should submit a request for information.
If the Wynne government is serious about wanting to address anti-black racism in policing, here are some things they should do:
1. Eliminate carding, full stop.
2. Start collecting race-based statistics on a system-wide level. The regulations mandate the collection of statistics, but in categories set up by the chief of police. Let’s collect the data in a rigorous manner not designed by those with an interest in preserving the status quo.
3. Overhaul the SIU and make information available to the public. In the name of accountability, we should make public the names of officers involved in problematic interactions as well as their history of infractions. U.S. citizens have access to this information and so should we.
The public has a short period to respond to the draft regulations. These proposed rules should be widely panned and something more should be demanded in their place: the true elimination of carding. We need to be honest, targeted and direct about what we are trying to do: eliminate anti-black racism and racism in general from policing. Toothless political band-aids won’t get the job done or restore dignity to black people affected by racist policing across Ontario.
Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) briefly shut down the intersection of Yonge and Dundas to demand justice in the death of Ottawa’s Abdirahman Abdi.
Abdi, 37, died after what witnesses have said was a violent arrest on July 24. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is now investigating two Ottawa police constables in connection with Abdi’s death and both have been suspended with pay.
Those who knew Abdi said told CBC News the man had mental health issues but described him as a gentle person. Prior to the altercation, police were notified that Abdi had been groping people inside a nearby coffee shop.
On Monday, BLMTO said this isn’t just an issue in Ottawa and issued a series of demands including that the SIU — the provincial agency that investigates any interaction with police that results in a death, serious injury or allegation of sexual assault — lay charges against the police officers involved in Abdi’s death.
“We don’t want to be here, but we’re here to say enough,” said demonstrator Syrus Ware.
“If we don’t get changes, we’re going to keep shutting it down.”
BLMTO also called for the SIU to release its entire report into the Abdi case and release any race-based data that it keeps.
Sitting in the middle of the normally bustling intersection, BLMTO representatives said they would keep shutting down public spaces until there’s an “overhaul” of the SIU.
Yusra Khogali, a BLMTO spokesperson, said she believes the SIU now works to protect police officers rather than hold them accountable for their actions.
Previously, BLMTO staged an event at Ryerson University for the community to mourn Abdi’s death but also to discuss the issues surrounding it.
The group pointed out there are some similarities between Abdi’s death and that of black men who have died following interactions with Toronto police.
“I heard the screaming,” Abdirizaq Abdi told CBC. “I see my brother lying down, police hitting so badly … I’ve never seen something like that in my life.” Interviewed as his brother was being transported to an Ottawa hospital, Abdirizaq described the horror, which he shared with other members of his family, as they watched what police officers did to Abdirahman. The videos that emerged of the encounter do not tell the full story, but witnesses, the Special Investigations Unit and Ottawa Police have filled in many of the details. And yet, in the face of another Black man dead at the hands of police, the Canadian conversation on anti-Black police violence demands our silence and obeisance to a broken system of accountability.
Here is what we know so far. According to the SIU, police responded to reports of a man groping women at a coffee shop on Sunday morning. Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau says Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old man with a history of mental illness, fled on foot. He was chased by officers to the apartment where he lived. Witness Ross McGhie told CBC that an officer caught up to Abdi at the building’s entrance. McGhie says the officer proceeded to beat Abdi with a baton about the legs, arms, and body. Then another officer arrived, McGhie said: “The officer emerged from that car very rapidly … pulled up right in front of the building … immediately jumped into the altercation and administered a number of very heavy blows to the head and face and neck of Mr. Abdi.” Multiple videos were shot — one, obtained by the Ottawa Citizen, shows Abdi lying bloodied on the ground for nearly 10 minutes before paramedics arrived.
We have heard and seen these things before. We know it by rote. Whenever Black bodies, lives, and communities are ripped asunder by police violence, we await the voices of the public officials who serve us. Those voices always arrive heavily laden with moral cowardice, and shoddily draped in conventional wisdom. In that fashion, Chief Bordeleau, Mayor Jim Watson, Councillor Jeff Leiper, and the Ontario attorney general made statements, asking the public for their patience while the SIU investigates.
Others took this cravenness to outrageous lengths. Before Abdi’s condition was publicly known, city councillor and decorated veteran Jody Mitic tweeted: “I fully support the @OttawaPolice and its members as they put their personal health& safety on the line for us. #ThinBlueLine” (He later tweeted condolences to Abdi’s family, and expressed his trust in the SIU investigation). Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof went even farther, insisting that discussing the blindingly obvious race issue is “inappropriate,” and that it was “unfortunate” that conversations on race and policing are bleeding into Canada.
Here is the difficulty in following their logic. According to these voices, we must ignore the words of Ottawa Police, the statement from of the SIU, video evidence, and the multiple witnesses who watched Abdirahman Abdi be beaten. Instead, we must wait months – maybe more than a year – for the SIU to produce all the facts. To do otherwise would be an unfair rush to judgement. And in order to judge in a way they deem fair, we must accept the SIU’s legitimacy. Given the organization’s history and operation, this is a tall order.
The mandate of the SIU is to investigate policing incidents involving civilians that result in death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. In the 2014-2015 reporting year, 94.9 per cent of officers investigated by the SIU were cleared. Even in the rare occurrences when the SIU places criminal charges, it is rarer still that officers will be convicted, much less imprisoned. Fair judgment requires we accept that police face no sanction when they are less than cooperative with the SIU, which happens in more than a third of investigations. It also requires the acceptance that virtually all SIU investigators are white men over the age of 50. Most are former police officers themselves who think nothing of brandishing their police pins, rings, and tie clips about their bodies while they interview witnesses.
Once the investigation is concluded, it is highly unlikely the public will know the full story anyway. Yasir Naqvi — MPP for Ottawa Centre, and Ontario’s attorney general — knows this, as the attorney general is the one person entitled to the SIU director’s report. The rest of us receive a news release. Aside from the investigation into the 2015 death of Andrew Loku (spurred by the Black Lives Matter sit-in at Toronto Police headquarters, as well as massive public outcry), the SIU director’s report has never been made public. That lone exception, by the way, was a partial and heavily redacted version of the Loku report. We still don’t have all the answers.
In fact, if the SIU had full control of this investigation, the names of the officers — Const. Dave Weir and Const. Daniel Montsion — would not be known. Under the agency’s rules, the names of officers under investigation aren’t made public unless charges are brought against them. It was the dissemination of witness video that helped identify one officer, whose name badge was visible. The other officer was identified by Postmedia. The duties of both officers have not changed; if circumstances were different, residents in the Hintonburg neighbourhood would never know that officers patrolling the streets had viciously beat a man in broad daylight.
These officers, by the way, belong to a department with an already troubled history of unjustifiable violence against Black residents. In 2005, a young Black man named Chad Aiken claimed he was punched in the chest by an officer after he asked why he was being pulled over. When he asked the officer for his badge, the officer responded “666,” the number associated with the devil. In 2008, a young Black woman named Stacy Bonds was arrested after asking why officers stopped and questioned her while she walked down Rideau Street. While in custody, she was slammed to the ground by officers, stripped of her shirt and bra, and left half-naked in a cell.
And with a history like this, we are asked to be patient and wait for answers after we have watched the horrifying manner in which Abdirahman Abdi died. The officers, sworn to protect and serve, milled about his bloodied body and waited long minutes for an ambulance. Rather than perform CPR, the two of them chatted while crouching over Abdi’s body. This image is searing, devastating, beyond comprehension. These officers are not likely to face consequences.
This is the system and circumstances we have been asked to trust. When we demand accountability for police officers, we are instead scolded for our impatience by those with the means to tear down this farce of a system. They ask us to refrain from “suggesting race is an issue,” as though speaking aloud the history of police brutality is more offensive than the brutality itself. They ask us to trust in a process designed to accomplish nothing, while our names continue to be ripped from our bodies and added to a sepulchral constellation of hashtags. It is a system that hears neither our grief, nor our pleas.
For Black Canadians, that is the justice we can expect. It is most certainly not blind.
Toronto city council voted unanimously Friday in favour of a motion that asks the province to review police services in Toronto and Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) through an “anti-black racism lens.”
Earlier Friday, Mayor John Tory confirmed at a news conference that he would be voting in favour of the motion.
City councillors Mike Layton, Kristyn Wong-Tam, and Gord Perks drafted the motion and brought it forward as Black Lives Matter activists continue to protest against the fatal police shooting of a black man in the city last year and pressure the city and province to take action.
The protests began last month, after the SIU — which investigates incidents in which civilians are killed or injured in confrontations with police — recommended that no charges be laid against the Toronto police officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne walked out of Queen’s Park and into a throng of Black Lives Matter protesters on Monday to assure the group that she’s taking their concerns seriously.
The Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement have staged several protests in recent weeks — including an ongoing demonstration outside police headquarters — after the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Andrew Loku were cleared of any wrongdoing. The group also staged a small protest outside Wynne’s home.
Black Lives Matter wants Wynne to launch a review of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) — the civilian agency that investigates interactions between police and the public that result in serious injury or death or allegations of sexual assault.
“In my heart I believe that we all need to work together to make sure we get this right,” Wynne told the demonstrators. “The reason I’m out here is I want you to understand that.”
The premier was joined by three members of her cabinet: Michael Coteau, the minister responsible for the province’s anti-racism efforts; Yasir Naqvi, the minister for community safety and correctional services; and Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur.
The politicians’ arrival was met with some fierce criticism.
“Why did it take you two weeks to respond to us?” one of the protesters, Yusra Khogali, interjected. “Two weeks we’ve been outside in the cold, in the hail, in the rain … being brutalized by police, being poisoned by them.”
“I apologize if we haven’t responded as quickly as you would’ve liked,” Wynne said. “But here I am, saying that we are willing to meet with you.”
The premier then asked for help from the group with reviewing the SIU.
“You are on the front line. You understand these issues. We need your help in those reviews,” she said. “We’re going to need to have some private meetings ahead of time, but we are willing to have public meetings.”