Many senior police managers fall into a state of shock when reporters come knocking with a negative story. They hunker down in their bunkers and wave patriotic flags to keep their detractors at bay. But the Toronto Police, perpetually in the eye of the storm, have been the exception over the past year.
The latest example is the fiasco over the long-standing procedure of Toronto officers submitting a "Persons Investigated Card" on the people they encounter.
The media have created much hubbub over this, accusing police of keeping "secret" files on citizens and using the cards as a form of racial profiling against blacks. The police commission, which has little understanding of police work and apparently even less interest in learning more, continue to hound senior staff about this "issue."
Reporters like to refer to this process as "carding," though they've been hard pressed to come up with an example of a person who has been negatively affected. Since the Toronto Star popularized the term a good counter strategy might be for police to continually refer to it as a 'Public Police Engagement' (PPE) card.
The 'Star Strategists' (SS) were rather clever in creating this storm. In highly ethnic Toronto, where many closely follow soccer, the word "carding" has a very negative connotation. The ramifications for being "carded" in soccer are serious. A miscreant player can receive either a yellow card "warning" or a red card "expulsion from the game."
The referee stands at attention (just like a cop), showing a red card to tens of thousands of people in the stadium. He waves it around with an up stretched arm, points at the miscreant as a form of shaming before taking out his notebook (just like a cop) and writing down the name of the person who committed the grievous violation. It can get quite emotional, even triggering riots and loss of life in some quarters of the world.
The Star plays the "carding" game with the full understanding that, to many readers, the word suggests the process is a "malevolent act" - a negative action against a person who has done nothing wrong. The "carded" have committed no infraction but are held up to public shame and humiliation in full view of their neighbours, the media complains.
The reality is unlikely to win crusading Toronto journalists a National Newspaper Award. A store owner notices a man loitering in a parking lot for several hours and calls police. After a quick interview the officer has either a reasonable explanation or lame excuse about what the person is up to and notes it in their memo book. Later, the officer puts in a "PPE" card explaining the experience - positive, negative or neutral - to colleagues who may get a similar call.
There are no charges and no inconvenience, other than perhaps a little apprehension for an honest citizen - or significant stress for a criminal worried about an imminent arrest. The former is regrettable, the latter is crime prevention.
Dispense with the PPE and the only record of the encounter is lost in a memo book entry - so much for transparency. The soothsayers howling about racial profiling have now sent it underground; no record, no trace.
Communities want to suck and blow at the same time. They want safe neighbourhoods without the bother of officers asking questions to make sure they stay safe. Moreover community leaders have not thought about motivations. A self-serving newspaper has convinced them that police officers are "carding" for an evil purpose - racism - but if there is no penalty attached to the practice, where is the satisfaction for a racist cop? There is no rule, as in soccer, where a citizen gets two yellow cards and then a penalty after a red card.
There is , however, another side to this card. Many officers speak disdainfully of them due to management's continual haranguing for more of them. The numbers game has even forced some pushback in the form of phoney names, addresses and bizarre descriptions. One card pointed out a male of obvious South Asian appearance as female and white. A short person was described as eight feet tall.
You see the problem. Far be it for me to suggest a soured officer might intentionally target blacks to sabotage the system. Quantity replaces quality and the general public becomes far too familiar with a possibly abusive process.
In the final analysis the police board chair, senior managers and the community must have a level of trust in their police. Vigilance is fine but remember that this practice has been going on for more than a century in Toronto, one of the safest communities in North America. Mess with that recipe at your peril.