Earlier today, the Alberta government banned the practice of carding in Alberta.
Carding is when cops randomly stop citizens and ask them for personal information.
The provincial announcement went on to say that the government has established clear guidelines for other common encounters, which they call “street checks”.
You see, to the UCP government, and many police departments, there’s a difference between carding and street checks. They differentiate between the two by saying that carding is “random and arbitrary” but street checks are done based on suspicious activity or suspected crime.
And there’s the rub.
What counts as suspicious? What counts as suspected? Who determines what’s suspicious or suspected? The cop?
Take a look at 26(a) of the Provincial Guidelines for the Collection of Personal Information from a Member of the Public regarding the street check policies and procedures framework every police service in Alberta must establish:
26) The framework must, at a minimum, stipulate that:
a) Police officer interaction with members of the public that results in the collection, recording and retention of personal and other information take place only during the course of:
i) Crime prevention activities;
ii) Gathering information for the purpose of criminal intelligence related to individuals known or reasonably suspected to be engaged in illegal activities;
iii) Inquiring into criminal offenses that have been or might be committed; or
iv) Inquiring into suspicious activities for the purpose of detecting illegal activities.
“Suspected to be engaged in illegal activities”, “crimes that might be committed”, “suspicious activities”.
Again, who chooses whether a person is suspected to be engaged in illegal activities? Who decides which crimes might be committed? Who determines which activities are suspicious?
It’s not those being stopped.
As long as the cop suspects someone is connected to a crime (or a future crime) or is being suspicious, they can stop a person. The thing is though, to an innocent person being stopped by cops, it all feels random and arbitrary.
b) The interaction and request for personal information shall not be based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender/gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, belief or social standing or any other prohibited grounds in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act and Alberta’s Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act
Okay. But this is virtually meaningless.
“No, I didn’t stop them because they were Indigenous. I stopped them because I received reports of break-ins in the neighbourhood, and they were acting suspicious.”
f) During an interaction with the member of the public where personal information may be requested, the police officer shall inform them of the reason for the interaction, the interaction is voluntary and they are under no obligation to provide their personal information or answer questions
That’s great and all, but have you ever been in a negative interaction with a cop?
There’s a power imbalance in that interaction, and just being in the interaction can be intimidating. The cop telling you that you don’t need to provide information if you don’t want to doesn’t make that power imbalance go away and won’t make you feel any less obligated to provide the information. Especially if you’ve been accosted for not complying with a cop’s request in the past.
The announcement also claims that “new records management and oversight requirements will ensure police services comply with the new street check rules.”
But they don’t. Nothing in there ensures compliance. And even so, compliance is pretty easy if you can justify to your superiors why you thought someone was “suspected to be engaged in illegal activities”, connected to “crimes that might be committed”, or involved in “suspicious activities”.
Here’s section 32 from the guidelines:
32) Police services shall develop a reporting system to facilitate the use of the information collected under section 26(a) of this guideline and monitor the conduct of their officers while engaged in the practice
Okay. But then what? What does monitoring look like? What are you looking for? What do you do if you find it?
33) Police services shall produce an Annual Collection of Personal Information Report which includes at a minimum:
a) Number of interactions conducted under section 26(a) of this guideline;
b) Number of attempted interactions with a member of the public conducted (interactions when the member of the public did not provide their personal information due to the voluntariness of the request);
c) Number of requests for personal information that did not meet the requirements set out in section 26(a) of this guideline and/or the police service’s policies;
d) Personal information obtained during an interaction described in section 26(a) of this guideline;
e) Information obtained as it relates to the community/location where the personal information was collected;
f) Number of requests for information from members of the public related to their interaction; and
g) Number of public complaints and available outcomes (related to request for personal information under section 26(a) of this guideline only).
I mean, great. You have your annual report of all the instances where cops stopped someone for something they considered suspicious and suspect. Now what? What do you do with it?
Or section 34:
34) If an Annual Collection of Personal Information Report indicates that a certain group has been identified as being disproportionate to other groups during the conduct of street checks, the Chief of Police shall review the practice of their police service and prepare a report setting out their proposal, if any, to address the disproportionate collection, recording and retention of personal information from a certain identified group.
“If any”? So addressing bias in street checks is optional?
“Oh, yeah. You’re right. It does seem as though we stop Indigenous and Black people at a higher rate than we do White people. Thanks for letting me know.”
Police services shall submit their annual report to their oversight body and the Director of Law Enforcement for review.
And what will they do with it? The guidelines don’t tell us.
Functionally, there’s no difference between carding and street checks. There wasn’t before these new guidelines, and there still isn’t. In either case, cops get to choose whether they’re justified in stopping someone. All that’s changed now is that they have to convince their superiors—other cops—that their justification was valid.
To everyone else, it will still feel like carding.