Police street checks drop dramatically in the last year, city councillors question the statistics

By Liam McPherson

City councillors are questioning statistics on police street checks released recently by the Ottawa Police Service, ahead of a public consultation on the controversial issue scheduled to take place in Centretown in April.

Street checks, the practice of randomly stopping an individual for questioning based on suspicions of their involvement or linkage to a crime, have emerged as a controversial issue in Canadian cities due to the possibility of racial bias in targeting suspects.

Street checks based solely on race or a person’s presence in a high-crime area have become known as “carding,” a practice which outlawed last year by the Ontario government.

The Ottawa Police Service recently touted numbers stating that officers had reduced the frequency of street checks from nearly 4,000 in 2016 to just seven in 2017, the year carding was outlawed. During an Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on Jan. 29, board members had a chance to question Ottawa’s three most senior police officers about what had changed.

Police Chief Charles Bordeleau, as well as deputy chiefs Steve Bell and Jill Skinner, appeared before the board and fielded several questions about street checks.

Board member Sandy Smallwood asked Bordeleau to explain in greater detail how the police managed to lower the frequency of street checks from thousands to fewer than 10 in just a year.

“There is no apples-to-apples comparison between the two figures,” Bordeleau replied, because (the police service) has changed our methods after provincial legislation banned carding.”

The legislation in question took effect Jan. 1, 2017, after which the province commissioned Justice Michael Tulloch to conduct consultations with police and the public. The consultations will be a forum for police officers and the public to share their thoughts on what has changed or still needs to change since the anti-carding legislation was passed.

Tulloch will use the information collected in a province-wide review of police street check policies.

Tulloch will be hosting Ottawa’s public consultation on April 16 from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Bronson Centre, 211 Bronson Ave.

West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, the chair of the police board, asked for clarification at the recent meeting of what constituted a “change in methods,” saying the police service had a duty to “tell the community” what was different about how police used to conduct street checks and how they are being done now.

Deputy chief Bell explained that officers have “expressed concern about the oversight system within the provincial legislation,” and are afraid to conduct a street check that might violate the spirit of the legislation. This implies officers are holding back because they might be accused of racist sentiments.

Exactly how police officers decide who to speak with and where when conducting street checks is another cause for concern.

Bell said “any regulated interaction should be associated with criminality. Where criminals are, what they’re driving, where they live. It is difficult to separate street checks and investigations because both operations centre around criminality…the balance of community privacy versus the information needed for police investigations is hard.”

However, he added that “work is far from done, and we intend to work with the province and the community on what constitutes the appropriate amount of information obtainable through street checks.”

Asked by Centretown News if he was satisfied with the information officers provided to the board, El-Chantiry stated briefly: “I believe so. It’s what’s available to us right now.”

Tulloch’s province-wide review is intended to help politicians, police and city staff determine the continued relevancy of police street checks. Local residents are encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences at the public consultation.