Photo: Halifax Examiner

On Friday, November 29, Halifax Police Chief Dan Kinsella will apologize to the African Nova Scotian community for street checks.

The apology comes after the police initially rejected calls to apologize. The Halifax Board of Police Commissioners prepared a statement at their April 15th meeting asking both the RCMP and the Halifax Regional Police to apologize for the street check policy. In May, both forces said they would not be apologizing. After the Independent Legal Opinion was submitted in October determining that street checks are illegal, Kinsella decided to apologize. The RCMP is still not apologizing.

Kinsella was sworn in as Police Chief on July 5. The moratorium on street checks came into effect on April 17. That means Kinsella wasn’t here for any of the activity he is apologizing for.

However, Kinsella was Deputy Chief in Hamilton while that city’s police force was accused of numerous incidents of racial profiling, including Hamilton’s first Black city councillor Matthew Green who was recently elected as an MP.

Former Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire, who was hired as the director of parking and security at McMaster University in 2015, has consistently denied that Hamilton police engaged in racial profiling despite ample proof.

(In 2016, the student newspaper The Silhouette was forced to retract an article that detailed De Caire’s history with the Hamilton police and their record of carding. Students protesting De Caire on campus were arrested and charged with trespassing. )

Certainly, the Hamilton police don’t feel sorry, and have not even admitted to any wrongdoing, and Kinsella has not apologized for racial profiling during his tenure in Hamilton.

We are therefore receiving a belated apology from a force that declined to apologize even when requested to do so by the Police Commission, and agreed only after their position was made untenable by the opinion of a white former Chief Justice, given to us by a man who is not sorry for racially profiling in another municipality and wasn’t even here before the police supposedly stopped checking us.

Police Chief Dan Kinsella. Photo: Halifax Examiner

“We know it is a powerful way to move forward, but it’s much more than just the apology. It’s the post-apology work that we will build into the plan to make sure that collectively we can move forward.” Kinsella told reporters about his planned apology before a meeting at the Halifax Central Library on November 18.

The police may be talking about “moving forward” (like Kinsella moved forward out of Hamilton into the position of Police Chief in Halifax), but despite the supposed ban on street checks, there has been little to no information about how the ban is being enforced, and whether the new policies on checks are actually a substantial change to current practice.

The police have not released the traffic stop data that has been requested by the community. The Kirk Johnson decision, which directed the police to gather race-based data, was based on Johnson being pulled over multiple times by police while driving. As highlighted in the Wortley report:

…[A] street check DOES NOT capture all police traffic stops, pedestrian stops or other types of investigative police-civilian encounters. This is an important point because many community members believe that a street check and a police stop are the same thing. It must be stressed, however, that street checks capture only a small fraction of all police stops. Street checks also do not capture civilian calls for service, criminal incidents, arrests and many other types of police-civilian encounter. These types of events are typically captured on General Occurrence Reports (GOs). Finally, street checks do not capture casual conversations between police officers and members of the public.

The African Nova Scotian community is concerned with racial profiling by the police as a whole. The experience of racist policing beyond the legal definition of street checks is captured in the phrase “Driving While Black,” used by Black people to describe how common the experience of racist traffic stops based on thin or unprovable suspicion are. The Jay-Z song “99 Problems,” released the same year (2003) as the Kirk Johnson decision, described the ways police use these stops to harass, intimidate, and criminalize Black people.

The issue of traffic stops is of particular concern with the expanded powers of police under the Cannabis Act. The police no longer need to have “reasonable suspicion” in order to pull a driver over. There is nothing to stop police from making race-motivated stops under this law. The Wortley report showed that “Black people in Halifax were 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their presence in the general population would predict.” As experts told Manisha Krishnan of Vice:

Cannabis lawyer Jack Lloyd also said people of colour will be disproportionately subjected to random stops. He told VICE this aspect of the bill will likely be challenged on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. It could be considered unreasonable search and seizure, he said, and the law itself has no rational connection to effectively curbing the behaviour it is purportedly trying to stop.

When the Black community speaks out about racial profiling and the long history of violent and violating encounters with the police, we are not just talking about data, or pedestrian stops, but the larger picture of all the ways Black people are surveilled, controlled, and targeted.

In focusing on a narrow definition of street checks — only those stops that involve data collection — a significant amount of the interactions Black people have with police are outside the ban. Regulating one form of racist policing is essentially meaningless if the police can continue the majority of their racist practices unchecked.

The ban also does not cover calls to police, which means that white people can continue to call the police on Black people for reading suspiciously.

But even with a ban on a small number of stops in place, it still is not clear how a ban is even being enforced. No reports were ever released on the moratorium to indicate how the police monitored whether or not they were performing any checks, who was overseeing the police to ensure compliance, or whether any checks took place while the moratorium was in place. We have received no information on the ban other than the government’s assurance that they have ended checks.

Just because the government declares a ban does not mean a ban is actually in place.

It is not even clear if the standard use to ban checks will change anything. In the Minister’s Directive on the moratorium, announced on April 17, 2019, the standard of “suspicious activity” is used for when police can justifiable collect and record information. “Suspicious activity” is defined as:

[A]ny activity where, under all circumstances, there are objective, credible grounds to request identifying information.

The Directive does not define “objective, credible” grounds. Particularly absent is the explicit statement that police must have evidence of a connection between the individual and a recent or ongoing offence. The police can continue to stop people and gather information while “inquiring into suspicious activity.”

Given that Black people being outside, at night, in the perceived wrong place or neighbourhood, with too many other Black people, listening to music, possibly having weed, looking scared of police, phone being mistaken for a weapon, being perceived as threatening, etc. are all used as grounds of suspicion, it is unclear how this actually changes anything about the police’s ability to stop Black people based on their own perceptions, fears, and stereotypes.

It is also not clear how this ban stops the police from fabricating “credible” grounds of suspicion after they execute an illegal stop. In theory, the police are not supposed to stop people they believe may be committing a crime without proof, nor treat behaviour like being present in a high crime area as suspicious, but who is going to report or oversee them to make sure this doesn’t happen?

Recommendation 2.9 in the Wortley Report says that:

[T]he new regulation should require officers to provide citizens with a receipt when subjected to a formal street check. This receipt should include the time and date of the interaction, the reason or justification for the street check and the name and badge numbers of the officers involved. The receipt should also include information on how the civilian can retrieve their full street check record as well as information on how to contact the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC).

Implementing that recommendation may induce the police to be more transparent in their interactions with the public, but unless there is an oversight process matching each reported check to a record of a receipt, the onus would seem to be on the person who believes they experienced a check and did not receive a receipt to complain. How many people are going to go through a complicated process to protest an illegal stop, bringing even more contact with the police into their life?

Another area of concern is what has already happened to the data gathered by checks. We know that police share this data with other forces, with border agents and other state security agents, as well as using the data in activity like forming maps of high-crime areas and building predictive models. If that data has already been used, we cannot call it back, no matter how many policies are put in place now to prevent the police gathering and using our information.

The Black community was never interested into getting into a semantic or legalistic battle about the precise definition of what constitutes a street check and what technically is not a check. Black people want to be able to live in society free from racist policing and without having our rights violated. We are interested in not spending money on cameras in our communities while our schools are closed down. We are interested in being able to drive a nice car without being pulled over on suspicion of being a pimp or drug dealer. We are interested in our children being able to go downtown with their friends without being harassed.

Whenever Black people resist and protest, if we cannot be suppressed and shut down, then those in power move to distract us and give us just enough to believe we are seeing change. Without any real evidence of the police and government ending racial profiling, we are left with the suspicion that the apology is less about the Black community and more about the police finding ways to maintain the status quo.

Before and after Friday, the community and media will be caught up in the wording of the apology, whether we are happy with the apology, and whether we accept the apology or not. All of this is happening on the terms of the police. Let us not forget that they refused to apologize, then changed their minds, and yet we are expected to show up when they finally feel like it.

What we should learn from the police agreeing to apologize is that they are scared. They are scared that when Black people organize against the state we can win. The people with power are scared that once we learn that we can stand against the police we will also learn that we can stand against landlords, and banks, and border security, and child welfare agents. And so, when we start making noise and challenging the state, they try new tactics to suppress us, to take up our time, and to derail us.

On November 18, former Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino, notorious for his brutal and racist policing regime, called for “carding” to be brought back in Toronto to fight gun violence. How long do we think it will take in Halifax after this apology, for a shooting or spike in violence in the Black community to be blamed on ending street checks? Justin Trudeau recently appointed Bill Blair as Minister of Public Safety. Blair consistently and vigorously defended racial profiling during his time as Toronto Police Chief. If we think racial profiling is over and the police are moving forward, we should look closely at why people like Blair are ever more successful.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Blame Mayor Savage.
    He never attends a meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners and shows no interest in how the Board carries out its legislated mandate.
    He should be the person delivering an apology and admitting that he and the Council have failed to ensure the Board has fulfilled its legislated duty before and during his time in office.
    The public does not know the time of the apology or if the meeting is open to the public.

    1. I believe that the board, as in the case of the privacy commissioner and the auditor general, does not actually have any power beyond making recommendations which can and will be ignored. These structural flaws could of course be corrected by the provincial government, but as the case of the Yarmouth ferry and other examples show, the will to do so does not exist,

      1. The Board has significant powers as spelled out in the Police Act.
        Under the Police Act the Chief reports to the Board and the Minister of Justice and policing is not mentioned in the HRM Charter other than this :
        ” Police services
        68 (1) The Council may provide police services in the Municipality
        by a combination of methods authorized pursuant to the Police Act and the board of
        police commissioners of the Municipality has jurisdiction over the provision of the
        police services, notwithstanding that they are provided by a combination of methods.
        (2) The Municipality may contract with the Royal Canadian
        Mounted Police, the Minister of Justice or another municipality to provide police
        services. 2008, c. 39, s. 68.

        and in section 136(1) referencing the issuance of a warrant for unpaid taxes

        The power and function of the board is spelled out in section 55 of the Police Act which supersedes the HRM Charter when there is any conflict.

        According to Global TV the apology will be at 11 a.m.