New street checks almost the same as the old

The province banned street checks. The police chief apologized. But nothing’s really changed. Earlier this month, former police officer Maurice Carvery says police turned his routine traffic stop into an example of racial profiling. “They haven’t stopped; they’ve only changed.”

Red lights flashing in your rearview; a high-pitched siren’s we-we-we-waaaahhh from somewhere behind your head, slowly penetrating your music-listening, daydreaming, distracted driving consciousness; the faint hope this siren does not scream for you; the eventual realization it’s you the officer wants to pull over; the long wait by the side of the road while traffic whizzes past and the cop does whatever the cop does behind the wheel before finally getting out of the vehicle and approaching you, all official and serious: “Licence and registration, please.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s happened to me a few times in more than 50 years of driving. Occasionally — especially in the days before cruise control — I would get stopped for speeding because… well, because I was. Sometimes, in the process of examining my documents, the officer would discover a lapsed registration, a proof-of-insurance I’d forgotten to remember to put in the glove box… Once in a while, I’d get a ticket. More often, the cop issued a warning after I solemnly promised to drive more slowly, update my registration immediately, remember not to forget to carry my insurance in the car…

An official encounter with the police is never pleasant, of course, but I don’t remember ever fearing one of those routine traffic stops could escalate, that more lights-flashing, siren-wailing police cars might suddenly show up to “backup” the first, or that I might find myself threatened with arrest simply for asking what the hell this was all about.

Perhaps that’s because I’m white.

No, check that. It is because I’m white.

Consider what happened earlier this month to a black man named Maurice Carvery, himself a former police officer. As reported by Global:

On Jan. 7, Carvery says he was driving his kids home from school when he was pulled over by an officer on Lacewood Drive. Carvery says he pulled into a nearby parking lot, where the officer informed him his licence plate had expired.

“I said I will address the situation pronto,” said Carvery.

He said he considered the interaction with the officer cordial, but then he said things escalated when more police cars showed up.

“I was just wondering, well, why are there so many police cars?” Carvery told Global News.

When that officer approached, Carvery says he asked why the officer felt the need to use lights and sirens when there were already multiple units on the scene of a routine traffic stop.

“He said, ‘I don’t know, were you giving someone a hard time?’” Carvery said.

Carvery says there is only one reason the original cop had felt the need to call in back up.

“Because he’d seen a large Black male, that’s it,” said Carvery.

Carvery says he continued to press the officer for an answer as to what warranted this type of response, but the officer refused to answer him. When the officer walked away, Carvery says he got out of his vehicle to ask again, and that’s when he was threatened with arrest.

This is troubling for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey belatedly banned street checks back in October after a 2017 CBC news investigation, followed by a criminologist’s report, followed by a separate report from a former chief justice all reached a far too obvious conclusion. Black people are “randomly” street checked by police six times as often as white folks. Street checks are not only “not reasonably necessary,” but they are also, “therefore, illegal.”

A month later, Halifax’s new police chief Dan Kinsella, in full blue dress uniform, offered what seemed like a full-throated apology to Halifax’s black community in a statement at the Halifax library:

“Far too many times we have failed you. I acknowledge the community’s concerns that the actions of police have had a negative and deep impact on generations of the African Nova Scotian community and disproportionately on young black men… Young men describe being racially profiled and stopped by police both while walking and driving, and in those instances feeling humiliated. That is wrong.

“On behalf of the Halifax regional police, I am sorry. I am sorry for our actions that have caused you pain. I am sorry for all of the times you were mistreated, victimized and revictimized.

“While decades of injustices cannot be undone, we are committed to doing better moving forward.”

Maurice Carvery isn’t buying. He says he quit the force six years ago because of the systemic racism within. When he complained about “the biases and the racial biases and the cultures and the attitudes, [his complaints] constantly fell on deaf ears.”

While police checks may have been officially banned, “they haven’t stopped; they’ve only changed.” Now what should have been a routine, unthreatening traffic stop becomes an excuse for racial profiling.

Carvery has filed a complaint with the city’s board of police commissioners.

Last week, Santino Rao, a single mother, complained she had been roughed up by police officers at a local Walmart. The police claimed they were just responding to a theft in progress. But Rao has not been charged with theft, only with resisting arrest.

And so it goes.

Police Chief Kinsella’s promise to “take personal responsibility and follow up in every case” involving racial allegations seems to have been limited. He did report to the board of police commissioners on the Rao incident but did so behind closed doors. So far as I know, he hasn’t made any public comment about the complaints from Carvery.

During his apology, Kinsella also promised, as a first step, that he would set up an advisory board made up of police and members of the black community “to look at specific incidents and complaints about police interactions with black men, women and youth — and report those directly to the chief.”

Given what we’ve seen so far, that’s not good enough. The advisory board, if it even exists, needs to get to the bottom of these and other complaints and report, not just to the chief but to the entire community.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner January 27, 2020.

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