By Sherif Foda
There’s no question that there are too many black people in jail in Canada. Everyone knows it. It’s what politicians call “over representation of African-Canadians in the criminal justice system.” And while we all agree that it’s a real and observable phenomenon, and that there are systemic reasons behind it, we rarely identify concrete, isolated causes.
But there’s no doubt that carding is one of these causes. Yet, police forces continue to defend the practice. They continue to issue permutations of policies and procedures that give them discretion to stop, frisk, and interrogate young men of colour with the thinnest of pretences.
I do believe that carding does sometimes provide the police with valuable information (even though police agencies have not established this through any quantitative assessment). I don’t believe that carding is just stopping and frisking for the sake of harassing young black men. I don’t doubt that the information police collect from carding in some cases helps them investigate crimes more effectively. But that doesn’t mean that carding shouldn’t stop. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the benefits of carding outweigh its costs.
There are two long-lasting and damaging consequences that carding has on coloured communities. The first is the collective feeling of anxiety and resentment towards law enforcement that carding evokes among young men. The second is the disproportionate tracking and investigative abilities law enforcement gather vis-à-vis the already socially marginalized black community.
Imagine a stranger walks up to you and poses a series of seemingly irrelevant questions:
What’s your name?
Date of birth?
Where are you going?
What are you doing?
What school do you go to?
Listen…we’re just asking questions. That’s all.
What does your tattoo mean?
Can I look in your bag?
Why not? Have something to hide?
I would have a hard time staying polite at about the fourth question.
Now imagine that same stranger has the coercive power of the criminal justice system behind him. Imagine he carries a gun on his waist, a badge on his bullet proof vest, and a union that would back him up even if there was YouTube video of him shooting at you nine times on a streetcar.
Anyone with a grain of empathy would understand that people routinely subjected to “random” interrogations on public streets would take umbrage at the officers and the entities charged with the implementation of carding. Local activist Desmond Cole has written at length about the sentiments the practice of carding conjures up in him. I won’t say more, because he has undoubtedly articulated it much better than I can, and I have no doubt anyone still reading this would not dispute that those sentiments are as subjectively genuine as they are legitimate.
Arguably, the deterioration of relations between whole generations of communities and those entrusted with the awesome power and responsibility to serve and protect us is alone too high a cost to justify the crime-fighting benefits that carding confers.
Of course, the effective prevention, detection, and neutralization of crime are imperative in any civilized society. But without harmonious race relations we will abandon the crucial distinction between a majoritarian tyranny and true democracy. This year we are witnessing our neighbour the United States—a “civilized” and “democratic” nation—transform itself into a fractured, polarized, and surreal society. Whole swaths of its population are at each other’s figurative throats. Law enforcement groups and grassroots activists are yelling past each other when they aren’t too busy literally turning their backs on politicians with whom they don’t agree.
And which side, pray tell me, is more likely to have members charged with a criminal offence and be incarcerated? Police officers whose training and biases makes them so fearful of black men in traffic stops that they pull the trigger before they even have a chance to think? Or the black men who voice their discontent by embracing either political activism or gang culture? Not to mention the vast majority of silent, law-abiding, politically inactive members of the black community who regularly experience discrimination but cannot afford to voice their dissatisfaction in any way.
Carding, of course, leads to over incarceration of black Canadians in a more direct way. Carding is, by its very nature, the collection of data surrounding interactions between police officers and members of the community. If it weren’t “valuable” and it did not contribute to the police’s ability to make arrests and lay charges, it would have been abandoned long ago.
The fact is that every time police record someone’s name, height, date of birth, exact location on a specific day, visible body art, friends, associates, and habits, they do so with a purpose. And I’ve seen that purpose first-hand in my practice. For example, when police are preparing to launch a major wiretap investigation, they will try to identify as many friends/associates of a target as possible to see if they can widen the net of phone surveillance. They do that by drawing on their impressive databases to which they contribute all year through carding. Their ability to identify targets, and to corroborate information they have from other sources, is what carding helps them do.
And while we all want the police to be able to do their job effectively, they shouldn’t be better at it when it comes to young black men than any other group.
They shouldn’t be able to identify criminality among certain communities more than in others. They should destroy the historical data they’ve collected. And they certainly shouldn’t be defending the practice so vigorously when it’s obviously contributing to overrepresentation of African-Canadians in the criminal justice system.