Photo: Steven Yearley
June 29, 2015
Peterborough Police did 829 “street checks” in 2014. Chief Murray Rodd says “they are indispensable.”
August 21, 2014 a rookie Peterborough cop stopped to chat with a couple of guys out walking the streets of Peterborough at 4am. The constable didn’t know it at the time but she was talking to Steven Yearley. Yearly was convicted of a violent sexual assault in Huntsville in 2007. The victim was beaten so badly her friends did not recognize her. The rape lasted 15 minutes before the assailant was scared off by someone passing by. Yearley escaped from prison and went on a violent rampage stealing a Hydro One truck and breaking into a number of residences. He voluntarily chose to serve 100 percent of his sentence to avoid the restrictions of parole. But when he moved back to Peterborough police issued a public safety alert and placed restrictions on Yearley as a dangerous offender. Among them was to obey a curfew from 10 pm to 6 am.
The cop didn’t know who Yearley was because he’d grown his hair. She just saw a couple of guys “walking in a place where there was a number of break and enters recently.” She says it was around 4 am and they seemed to be trying to evade her so she stopped them. She entered the details of the interaction on a contact card in the computer right down to the false name Yearley had given her. The next day one of the detectives was reading the information and recognized the alias and new exactly who it was. Steven Yearley was arrested for breaching this conditions. It was the second time he was charged with breaching conditions. A month before he was found with cocaine according to police.
Deputy Chief Tim Farquharson says this is a perfect example of why streets checks or carding works. ” This whole street check thing is part of intelligence lead policing, the proactive and the preventative piece and thats what we are paid to do”
In 2014 Peterborough Police did 829 street checks and so far this year they’ve done 483. They collect information like name, age and date of birth if it’s given. They write down a description of the person, what they were wearing, the date, time, location and circumstances that lead to the interaction. It’s stored in a police data base.
Inspector Larry Charmley says “a lot of our information comes from where officers are aware of problems in the community, they are looking for suspicious activity, suspicious people, suspicious vehicles and if they see someone hiding in the back corner of a parking lot at 2 am they are going to go over and check them out”
For example police say when they have a number of break and enters in a neighbourhood they look at all the street checks from officers in the area to police talked to in the early morning hours. Farquharson puts it this way ” If I went to a hospital likely 99 percent of the people there are sick right, so that’s where the doctors are, police are where the crime is”
Police point to a major arrest and seizure made by a bike cope downtown Peterborough on a Sunday night as more proof that the practice is helping keep the community safe. According to police the cop saw a known criminal with people who didn’t look like locals, in an alleyway late one Sunday night. He did a street check on the known criminal. Turned out he was on parole conditions and had a number of matters before the court but no grounds for arrest at that moment so he took off. But the bike cop stayed and started talking to the other two people simply asking them “what’s up”. That’s when one guy fessed up to having drugs according to police. The others were then found to have a loaded gun, knives, balaclavas and a break and enter kit.
Farquharson says the cop could easily have just walked away and not checked on the known criminal but that’s not what they want to see happen. ” You don’t want to create the FIDO effect, forget it and drive on attitude because we encourage and expect proactive and crime prevention initiatives whenever possible.” He says they are trained to use their discretion and to be able to articulate the reason for the check.
Perhaps the most high profile case to be solved using street checks or “carding” is the case of Russell Williams. The high ranking Military Commander pleaded guilty to all 88 charges against him — including two counts of first-degree murder, two counts each of sexual assault and forcible confinement and 82 break-ins and attempted break-ins, after he was caught. Williams came to the attention of investigators at a roadside checkpoint when his SUV’s unusual tires were linked to treadmarks at one of the crime scenes.
But critics say carding should be banned.
Jahmeet Singh a Brampton Lawyer and MPP told the Toronto Star “If you’re stopping someone arbitrarily, if you’re asking questions without any reason, without any reasonable grounds, then that’s unacceptable, that violates the Charter” Singh claims to have been carded by police for no reason. Several prominent Torontonians such as former mayors David Crombie and Barbara Hall spoke out publicly against the practice. Public outcry prompted Toronto Mayor John Tory to come out against carding at a press conference a few weeks ago. Desmond Cole, a freelance journalist and activist who says he has been carded by Toronto police a number of times told the Star people in power won’t “come right out and say that police have been abusing their authority and have been engaging in rampant racial profiling.”
Farquharson agrees that stopping and harassing people without reason or justification is completely wrong but he says there’s a fine line between trying to keep the community safe and officers using their knowledge, skills and abilities to gather intelligence that may lead to solving or preventing a crime. The litmus test is if the stop is being done in good faith according to Farquharson. He says ” when we see somebody in their pyjamas walking at 2 in the morning, you have every right to walk in your pyjama’s at 2 in the morning if you want, but our guys should probably stop and talk to that person and see what their state is right?” “You could drive on and say well that person has every right to walk in their bare feet, in pyjamas at 2 am if they want to but does that make sense to you?” “We need to check them, so where do you draw the line?”
Critics say minorities, the homeless and the mentally ill are being unfairly targeted by streets checks and carding. Others say the statistics of streets checks reflect the ethnic make-up of the neighbourhood. Inspector Dan Smith says “having worked in Toronto I can tell you there are neighbourhoods that are made up of 90 percent Jamaican or Somali and every other dark ethnic race so I can tell you 90 percent of those contact cards in those neighbourhoods are based on that.”
In Peterborough, police say officers have to be able to articulate what prompted the street check and could face disciplinary action if not done within the guidelines. “We have a policy we review yearly with our officers based on biased street profiling and its important they don’t use any of these grounds for the sole purpose of stopping someone” says Smith.
Charmley says people are free to walk away at any time during a street check.
The Wynne government has taken steps to regulate the practice. Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi announced new rules for street checks are coming this fall. Critics say it can’t be regulated and must be stopped all together. The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police say they welcome regulations as long as it doesn’t impede police. “We believe that because members of our communities are concerned about street checks and how they are conducted, it is important for us to work with the Ontario Government to address those concerns. Many police services have excellent policies and procedures that respect the rights of individuals while protecting this important tool for our officers to keep our communities safe. If some services do not have adequate policies in this area, we believe theProvince has a role in ensuring that they do” according Joe Couto,Director of Government Relations and CommunicationsThe Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
But banning it should be out of the question police say. Chief Murray Rodd says that’s what criminals are banking on. “It’s in every organized criminals interest to not have us equipped with the tools we need to bring their enterprises down.”