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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Counting Cards

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday September 17, 04:18 pm
Why do Saskatoon police conduct so many street checks?

Crime prevention, or thinly veiled discrimination?

According to a recent Globe and Mail report, Saskatoon Police practice “carding” (arbitrarily stopping a person and asking for their name, address and other personal details) more than any other Canadian city. There were a total of 4475 “street checks” in Saskatoon in 2014 — roughly two per cent of the entire population. Police conducting street checks in Saskatoon follow no formal procedure, and citizens aren’t advised of their right to disengage when being carded.

Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill says the reported number of street checks is misleading without an understanding of the full picture.

“Our street checks encompass quite a few different things. The first category — if we're running a surveillance or a project on organized crime — we would have officers putting cards on people we're checking in on,” he says. “So that would mean we're not actually stopping and talking to them.”

Weighill says the other two categories comprise checks on suspicious-looking people and people who are homeless or panhandling downtown, so they have a record of who’s on the streets and who’s being “aggressive.”

“Over 2200 of those 4000 street checks were in that first category, where it's surveillance and we don't actually stop and talk to that person,” says Weighill.

Weighill says that street checks are an important part of crime prevention and data for investigations.

“We’re trying to deter and prevent crime. We've had a lot of break-and-enters throughout the city. If you're in a suspicious circumstance, you have to be checked,” says Weighill. “It has nothing to do with a criminal record. We don't share this information with anyone. It gives us a place to start with an investigation.”

Weighill acknowledges the sensitive nature of proactive crime prevention, saying he understands the frustration of individuals who are repeatedly carded. Forty-two per cent of their resources are allocated to the 20th and 22nd Street areas, where he says a large percentage of assaults, break-and-enters and street robberies occur.

“There' nothing sinister going on here: We're just asking people what they're up to. That's our job. Otherwise we might as well stay in our police station until we get a call,” says Weighill. “Most of these street checks we do are in the early morning hours. So it's not targeting, it's criminal profiling. We're stopping people in the dead of the night who are doing suspicions things. It's got nothing to do with your race or your culture.”

But many of those who are routinely carded believe the process is unfair and discriminatory. Rylan Smallchild, who works the front desk at The Lighthouse, says he sees it all the time.

“[People] get harassed on a daily basis because of their reputation. I've seen over-excessive force on people that [the police] handle. I've seen cops trip people to the ground who weren't cooperating,” says Smallchild. “I feel very intimidated when I see things like this. Like if I say something, I'm going to get hauled in.”

The Saskatoon police maintain that one is not required to submit their name or cooperate with the police if simply being “street-checked.” But it’s not that simple, says Smallchild.

“I know the police are there to protect and serve the people, [but] I do see a handful of cops abusing their privileges. People are afraid to voice their opinion because they don't want any trouble.”

Smallchild says that he himself has been targeted by police. He describes an incident when, while getting off the bus, he was pulled aside by two police officers who demanded his name, ID and whether there were any warrants out for him.

“I try to understand both sides; I try not to get defensive. But that was racial profiling. Everyone else walked off the bus without being questioned. I felt very ashamed. Why would they pick me over anyone else? It made me feel very small and ugly. I didn't bother to ask why they selected me. I just wanted to get away from them.”

Smallchild believes there's a better way the police service can approach street checks.

“I know there's sexual predators and violent people out there. But I believe if a police officer approaches someone, they should do it as if they're not even wearing their uniform. Don't try to intimate people. I don't think this would be as much of an issue if the police were polite and respectful when talking to people.”

On Sept. 14th, an inquiry for an operational review of the police service was called at the Board of Police Commissioners by commissioner Darlene Brander.

“One of the major catalysts for the inquiry was gaining an understanding of the process itself,” says Brander. “The key points of the inquiry, for me, are transparency and to ensure there’s a good process in place — that there's a reasonable cause for a street check, that it’s fair and there's criteria around that.”

“We’re trying to balance the safety of the public and also ensure the human right of the individual is in place,” said Brander.

City councillor Charlie Clark, also a Police Commission member, says that street checks are a positive practice, but must be conducted in a way that builds trust.

“We want police officers out there, talking and building relationships with people. But I think we have to understand that that will include areas that have more concerns of public safety and criminal activity. The approach that is taken is about building trust, not a practice that is leaving people feeling like they’re living their lives under suspicion,” says Clark.

“This is an opportunity and responsibility — in the light that Saskatoon has a high number of street checks — to understand more about how this is done, that street checks are done in order to undertake actual investigations of criminal activity, and not just a random act. We lack some of that clarity right now, what the procedures are and how to ensure that the rights of the individuals are protected,” he says.

As part of the prelude to the inquiry, a public meeting will be held on Oct. 7th at TCU Place, inviting the public to give their input as to what they think are some of the key priorities to consider during the operational review. 

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