Ford announces new restrictions as COVID-19 cases threaten to remain high all summer

Certainly the COVID numbers in Ontario, and the rest of Canada for that matter, are all going in the wrong direction. However, the extension of policing powers to stop anyone, anywhere, at anytime, without cause is unethical, immoral, and wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are certain areas where I feel that extension of legal and policing powers should be considered as part of police reform. The same as I believe that community policing and the increased availability of social and mental health experts should be part of that effort.

However, the general rule of thumb, regardless of what colour you are, is that when police are given the ability to come up with excuses to card people (stop and search), it is often a prelude to more invasive assaults on civil liberties.

Being asked to confirm you are going to pick up groceries, or stopping at the pharmacy, will undoubtedly lead to vehicle searches based on police ‘suspicion’. There are already far too many examples of police misusing the powers they already, irrespective of whether a stop and search activity would be deemed appropriate to an outside observer or not.

While there are websites dedicated to people understanding their rights,  most people do not understand what is or isn’t required of them. Beyond that, some police (very small minority) can use that lack of knowledge on the part of the person being stopped to justify escalation due to non-compliance. 

This is the essence of what happens with people of colour, indigenous, or other form of profiling when all most law abiding people want to is get on with their day without being harassed. 

Three major things here have changed as of this morning

  1. Police can now stop people and force a request for id even if you are not in a vehicle or on a bicycle
  2. Police can now issue fines for any reason they individually feel is not valid
  3. Police do not need to issue you a receipt

To be fair that last part is unclear as police do not have to give you a receipt if you are pulled over as part of a traffic stop, but do if you are simply on the street. This new policy crosses a grey line in which it is unclear which set of rules apply when you are essentially being carded in a vehicle, for reasons that have nothing to do with the highway traffic act. Also, does the new exemption mean that a receipt doesn’t need to be given if you are outside a vehicle since this is now a provincial mandate and no longer simply a policing best practice? None of this is clear.

Prior to this morning, here were your obligations in relationship to street checks[1][2]

Whether you have to show the police your ID or answer any questions depends on the situation.

In most cases, if the police stop you on the street, you do not have to show the police your ID or answer any questions.

If the police stop you while you are driving or cycling, you do have to show the police your ID or tell them who you are when asked. This is required by the Highway Traffic Act and municipal bylaws.

What the police can do
The police do street checks when they’re looking into suspicious activity, gathering general information in the community, or investigating crimes they know or suspect might have happened.

A street check does not have to be for a specific crime, it can be for general criminal activity. The police have to follow certain rules when they do a street check.

Street check rules (also known as carding)

Starting January 2017, the police must tell you why they want your ID. They must also tell you that you can refuse:

  • to show them your ID
  • to give them your name and date of birth

The police must have a good reason to ask for your ID. They are not allowed to ask for your ID:

  • because of your race
  • because you are in a high-crime area
  • because you refused to answer a question or walked away
  • to meet a target for how many IDs they want to collect

If you decide not to give the police your ID or tell them who you are, they can’t stop you from leaving.

The police must also take notes about the street check. They must keep a record of whether you told them who you are or showed them your ID.

You will get a receipt

If you are involved in a street check, the police must give you a receipt. This is true whether you give them your ID or not.

The receipt is a piece of paper that should include:

  • the officer’s name
  • the officer’s badge number
  • how to contact the Office of the Independent Police Review Director if you have a complaint
  • who to contact to see the information the police have about you   

These rules, that came into effect in Ontario in 2017, where created for exactly the purpose to start the education process with police on issues impacting

  • individual rights,
  • unlawful detention,
  • discrimination, and
  • bias awareness.

Allowing practices which give permission to go backwards and essentially rollback these reforms, diminishes our society. The longer these ‘exceptions’ are in place, the more likely they are to become a permanent fixture of our policing community. Those hard fought reforms will have been for nothing as the hard-line elements of our policing community will use this as a justification under the guise of “well that was then and this is now, and now is different”.

Now is not different. 

Now is the time when we should be sticking to our guns and reaffirming that the reasons for those reforms is just as important, if not more important, now as it was then.

It is encouraging that policing organisations around the province have issued statements similar to the one here by the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) indicating

“We are carefully reviewing these new authorities. We are very mindful of the perceptions of the broader public as well as within our more marginalized, racialized and/or Indigenous/Aboriginal/Inuit peoples,” said Chief Sloly. “The OPS will continue to use a combination of education, engagement and enforcement. We do not want these powers to impact public trust. The public’s compliance with the Stay-at-Home order along with their collective effort to be healthy is our biggest strength and our best chance to manage this public health emergency.”

My fear however is that the longer these exemptions are in place, the more willing police will be to find reasons to use the exemptions.

The most obvious use of such powers would be to establish persistent RIDE programs for COVID similar to what exists for impaired driving. Programs like this, when properly identified and in compliance with public transparency in policing, would not necessarily be a bad thing. I think it could be a good use of the exemptions in a way that supports public trust and accountability.

Its when police can simply randomly stop people for no apparent reason outside of these types of organised programs that public trust erodes. I would hope that our police services understand how fragile that trust is, and provide education to all uniformed officers not to abuse it.

There are obviously some people who aren’t taking this pandemic seriously otherwise the numbers wouldn’t be going up. However the vast majority of people are treating it seriously. It would be a mistake to punish people simply for being outside their homes in a responisble manner when they are supposed to be grounded.

As a public relations stunt by this government it is a very bad one. And hopefully one that won’t be repeated after this  order under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act has run its course.

— Kevin Feenan

Leave a Reply