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The excited and protracted denunciation of "carding" - the stopping and questioning of people by police and the recording and filing of details of those who aren't under arrest or being detained - in Toronto almost has reached the point where it's a given that the practice is wretched, utterly without merit and must be permanently stopped.

 

As a smart friend notes, the discussion has been positioned as two simplistic halves: One saintly (those who bravely oppose carding), the other ghastly (the retrograde dummies who support it). There's almost no room in the public space to breathe on the topic anymore, let alone to offer a different view.

 

This latest debate has been twisted by the widespread erroneous assumption that all such stops by police are randomly instigated, presumably by bad police whose only goal is to harass young black men.

 

In fact, when carding is done properly, there's nothing random about it, as Peel Regional Police Chief Jennifer Evans said in a recent phone interview.

In Peel Region, "street checks," as carding is called there, are done by complaint area (meaning a high-crime neighbourhood) or are incident-related (meaning police are responding to a radio call).

 

And Toronto's new chief, Mark Saunders, who was lucky enough to take over the job just as this hot potato, egged on by the Toronto Star, reached a boil — his predecessor Bill Blair suspended the practice Jan. 1 — and who had the temerity to beat out the favoured choice of the Star to boot, already has pledged toend random stops in the city.

 

But done right, carding, Evans said, "is absolutely invaluable" as an intelligence-gathering tool.

Consider the case of Cecilia (Ceci) Zhang, the little girl who on the night of Oct. 19 or early morning of Oct. 202003, was stolen from her bedroom in her family home.

 

The details were harrowing: Somehow, from under the noses of her sleeping parents, someone had entered the North York house and taken the lovely nine-year-old.

 

Toronto Police launched an enormous search and investigation; Ceci's parents, Raymond Zhang and Sherry Xu, re-mortgaged their home in case it was an abduction-for-money and a ransom demand would come; rewards were offered.

 

But for months, there was no sign of the little girl, no breaks.

 

Then, on March 27, her remains were discovered in Mississauga, by the Credit River, near a fish sanctuary.

The discovery of the body brought the Peel Regional force into the mix, and as it turned out, on Sept. 18, 2003 — one month and a day before Ceci disappeared — police had received a complaint about a suspicious car in the same area near the river.

 

Because of the fish sanctuary, fishing isn't allowed, and alert neighbours frequently call police.

 

The officer who responded sure enough found a car and in it three young men.

 

She spoke to the three, who said they were looking for a place to fish. They showed her their rods. She got their names and checked their identification.

 

One of them was a young fellow named Min Chen, who lived in Scarborough, and was a long way off his home turf. And the rods still had their price tags attached. The officer had no grounds to arrest or hold the three, but there was something hinky about their story.

 

All of this went onto her street check.

 

As it turns out, Ceci's parents had had a tenant, a young woman. Police had interviewed her, and she told them only two people had ever visited her at the house — a girlfriend and a boy she knew only as "Ming."

 

Now, police knew, there'd been a young man named Min who only a month before had been within about 200 yards of where Ceci's remains were discovered.

 

Other pieces soon fell into place: Chen's fingerprints were found on the outer edge of a window screen, and in July, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the little girl's slaying.

But, as Chief Evans said, the thing that allowed detectives to first place Chen in the area of the body was the officer's street check. It allowed police tointerview his two companions that night, who confirmed that yes, Chen was quite familiar with the area; they'd been there before.

 

The street check, the carding, was the information that allowed homicide detectives to not only link this young man who lived in Scarborough to the Credit River dump site, but also to two potential witnesses who could testify as to his familiarity, generally, with the area.

 

No wonder that on May 92006, Chen, who was then 23, abruptly changed his plea and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

 

That's one dramatic example of carding, done rightat work. Evans said it works similarly with gang homicides — it puts together people (X and Y were in a car that was carded one night months earlier) who otherwise might not be so linked.

 

Carding also works with Alzheimer patients or elderly people with dementia who wander; they may not know who they are, but police, through a prior card, may be able to identify someone by her housecoat or the area she's found in.

 

Done strategically, carding is not profiling race, but crime. It may mean that in high-crime areas, people of colour are stopped more frequently; the sad reality is that in these areas, people of colour are over-represented in some crimes, just as in other crimes, white men are over-represented.

 

But the courts, as my smart friend pointed out, are hardly shy about scrutinizing police conduct. Nor should they be. That's what judges do. But police have their work, too, and they ought to be free to do it, knowing they'll be called to account if they do it badly.

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