Gaining a level of trust in police

Many senior police managers fall into a state of apoplectic shock when reporters come knocking with a negative story. They hunker down in their bunkers and wave patriotic flags and candy-coated press releases flow to keep their detractors at bay. Following on this theme the Toronto Police, perpetually in the eye of the media storm, have been the lighting rod for the future of Canadian policing. 

One example is the fiasco over the long-standing procedure of officers submitting a “Persons Investigated Card” on the people they encounter on their shift. 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. How this can be a secret file and yet open to the newspaper to find out about through the Freedom of Information Act is still not understood by me.

The police commission, which has little understanding of police work and apparently even less interest in learning more, continued to hound senior staff about this practice of recording who is doing what on the streets until they essentially killed it. Police in Toronto now have tunnel vision of what is going on.

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 ‘Police Public Engagement’ (PPE) card. The express purpose of this tool could be to monitor what the police are doing on the street.

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 well, with the full understanding that, to many readers, the word suggests the process is a malevolent act – in the case of policing a negative action against a person who has done nothing wrong. The “carded” individual has committed no infraction but are held up to public shame and humiliation in full view of their neighbours, the media complains.

The reality should unlikely win crusading Toronto journalists a National Newspaper Award. A citizen notices a man loitering late at night in a parking lot for several hours and calls police. After a quick interview the officer has received either a reasonable explanation or a lame excuse about what the person is up to and notes it in a 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 on another shift.

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 the practice underground; no record, no trace. Essentially a free-pass to the criminal element and quite a hunting expedition to find which officer spoke to the citizen.

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 upon the production of a red card. If the cop is truly racist there are more damaging ways to express it and if he is racist what better way to monitor who he stops and why.

In small town policing a local cop can know everyone. Not so in a large urban environment. Methods must be implemented to bring small town efficiency to big city streets. The PPE card is one of the few methods to do so.

Toronto, once again, has become the thermometer for the country. This hue and cry has now gone nation-wide and many have predicted an upsurge in violent criminal activity as a result of the demise of the PPE. Those predictions have now come true. Police officers, no longer urged to monitor what happens on their beats, have reverted to response policing only. If someone calls then the police will respond. Officer initiative is officially frowned upon and police will have to get very good at tracing everything after crimes are committed.

The criminal element are simply delighted with their new found freedom to stalk, plan and execute their every whim with impunity. The cops are now irrelevant.

In the final analysis the police board chair, senior managers and the community must have a level of trust in their police. Vigilance over policing is fine but remember that this “carding” practice has been going on for more than a century in Toronto, until recently one of the safest communities in North America. Mess with that recipe at your peril.

( NEXT: is there a solution? Yes indeed! See next posting.)