Calling Out the Cops
Inside the Toronto Star's 17-year fight to expose carding—the investigations, the legal battle and the power of the press to provoke change
In 1994, at 28 years old, Jim Rankin got his big career break and joined the Toronto Star’s city section as a reporter and photographer. He quickly discovered the newspaper was also the region’s unofficial police complaints bureau. A significant number of Black Torontonians told him they’d been stopped by police engaging in “racial profiling,” the targeting of people based simply on the colour of their skin. Still, Rankin would hear only a small fraction of these stories that haunted the city for decades, terrifying one segment of the population as another denied that they could be real.
There was the teacher who counted down from 10, waiting for the inevitable flashing lights, every time he saw a police cruiser pull up beside him; the law student stopped so often he began to feel South African-style apartheid was alive and well in Toronto; the young journalist approached by officers for walking down streets he “didn’t belong” on, in a city he had come to call home.
Rankin was struck by the fear and anger associated with these stories. So, he spent years trying to understand why the relationship between cops and Black citizens was so clearly troubled. After many interviews with police representatives and members of Black communities, he’d gathered hundreds of anecdotes and countless accusations from both sides. But he didn’t have enough data to comprehensively report on the sense of injustice.
That began to change early in 1999, his fifth year at the Star. Rankin was at his desk, looking through a run-of-the-mill press release from the Toronto Police Service (TPS) about a male robbery suspect.
As he read it, he noticed a bizarre reference, just one word, an adjective that would prove crucial to understanding the tense relationship between Black Torontonians and the city’s cops. That word was “yellow.” Rankin wondered: how could a suspect be described as yellow? Did he have jaundice?
The surprising answer led to more than a decade of groundbreaking reporting that has exposed “carding,” the nationwide police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people, even without suspicion of criminal offence. Many believe it is racial profiling.
The Star’s coverage of carding has been the result of a combination of persistent reporters, committed editors and supportive publishers willing to take on serious financial risks. Together, they make a strong case for how a healthy newspaper industry can amplify the voices of marginalized populations that democracies haven’t done nearly enough to serve.
One of the voices the paper helped magnify was that of Chris Williams, an academic and activist. “Investigative journalism, from the standpoint of a lot of people, is dying, primarily for fiscal reasons. This series,” he says, referring to the Star’s carding coverage, “shows how indispensable such journalism is for public education, for holding public institutions accountable and for fostering critical consciousness generally.”
The hunt for the meaning of “yellow” began when Rankin and then-colleague John Duncanson, who died in 2009, embarked on a year-long process of piecing together snippets of information from trusted police sources they’d built up throughout their careers. The first major breakthrough was the discovery of a fingerprinting program, the Repository for Integrated Criminalistic Imaging (RICI). One of the database’s headings, “colour,” allowed users to choose from white, brown, black, red or yellow when identifying suspects. These colour codes were converted into ethnicities before appearing in press releases. “Yellow” should have appeared as “Oriental” in the release—though police now use “Asian”—but a clerk at police headquarters had forgotten to make the change.
The journalists pressed police contacts to discover what else the force was tracking. “John Duncanson was a terrific cop reporter and could get almost anyone to talk and say things that they really shouldn’t be talking about with a reporter,” Rankin says. Digging deep through police contacts eventually yielded more gold, as Rankin acquired the name of two additional databases. After filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request through the TPS, he learned that both contained race fields. This was the first hard evidence that Toronto cops were recording racial characteristics. These steps were crucial to putting together the information required for a specific enough FOI request to get the databases, which Rankin submitted in March 2000 after consulting his editors.
For two years, the Star negotiated with the police through the municipal FOI act. They reached a compromise in the summer of 2002: the TPS gave the Star access to the Criminal Information Processing System (CIPS), which allowed analysts to search for racial disparities in the way police treat people after arrests. “We knew more about what was in CIPS, and we had ideas about what we could look for in terms of differences that might speak to potential racial bias,” Rankin says. “We also had to be pragmatic. Police had never before had a request like this, and we knew it was eating up their resources—and ours.”
The Star’s “Race and Crime” series in October 2002 found that in cases of simple drug possession, Black people were taken into police stations more often than white people, and they were held overnight for a bail hearing at twice the rate. “The Toronto crime data also shows a disproportionate number of black motorists are ticketed for violations that only surface following a traffic stop,” wrote Rankin. “This difference, say civil libertarians, community leaders and criminologists, suggests police use racial profiling in deciding whom to pull over.”
The series had a huge impact according to Frances Henry, a retired York University professor and leading racism expert: “The fact that the Star and all those very good journalists they had at the time decided to do that piece of research and that series was a milestone, I would say, in journalism on race and racism in this country.” Henry and co-author Carol Tator, an instructor and consultant who has worked in the anti-racism movement for decades, cited “Race and Crime” in Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging The Myth of “a Few Bad Apples,” their 2006 book. “The series in the Star provoked a discursive crisis that continues to reverberate,” they write. “The concept of a ‘discursive crisis’ refers to a set of conditions that has a profound impact upon society and, more specifically, the state of minority/majority relations.”
But cops weren’t as impressed with “Race and Crime.” The Toronto Police Association (TPA), the union representing the city’s law enforcement, launched a lawsuit against the Star in January 2003, alleging the series labelled every officer in the force as racist. The TPA sought $2.7 billion in damages ($375,000 for each of its 7,200 members). “It’s cartoonish, the amount they were seeking,” says Rankin. “It’s hard to take it seriously, but at the same time, you go to bed at night and you think, what if we didn’t do it right? We all lost a lot of sleep.” Throwing out the case in June 2003, the judge concluded, “The allegedly defamatory comments and innuendoes in the articles cannot reasonably be understood as intended to apply to every officer in the TPS.”
“Race and Crime” was a success, and the Star had dodged a massive lawsuit. But Rankin wasn’t satisfied. As the years went on, he kept in touch with his police contacts to develop a better understanding of the database the paper had failed to acquire with the 2000 FOI request. He desperately wanted access to the Master Name Index (Manix). The information on hundreds of thousands of people in the database included their race, which officers marked on a contact card after stopping them. He filed another FOI request, but the TPS quickly denied it.
After the drama of “Race and Crime,” Rankin wasn’t surprised by the rejection. But he wasn’t about to back down. He went to his editors, and despite the likely challenges ahead, they were willing to take the TPS to court for information contained in the carding database. He was thrilled, remembering exactly why he loved working at the Star. Knowing that his colleagues, all the way up to the publisher, were committed to the story gave him the confidence to slug through a seven-year legal battle while continuing to report on allegations of police brutality and racial profiling.
In early 2009, the Star won the case, and the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the TPS to reimburse the newspaper’s legal fees. Rankin taped a copy of the $40,000 cheque, along with another for $35,319.49 from the TPA’s earlier failed class action lawsuit, to the side of his desk. They were souvenirs of the battles he fought in the name of good journalism.
By January 2010, he was looking over a breakdown of carding stops in Toronto from 2003 to 2008. The data he had used in “Race and Crime” was complex, but Manix was straightforward. “Within a day or two of looking at the carding database, we could see a pattern,” Rankin says. There was a shocking racial disparity: Black people made up 8.4 percent of Toronto’s population at the time, but a staggering 22.6 percent of contact cards. He recruited help from the Star’s investigative reporters, as most of his original team from “Race and Crime” had moved on. Over the next month, they put together a new series.
“Race Matters,” published in February 2010, reported that Black people were three times more likely to be stopped than white people; Black males aged 15 to 24 were carded 2.5 more times than white males of the same age; and Black people were carded at significantly higher rates than their overall census population in each of the city’s 74 police patrol zones. The series included interviews with Rohan Robinson, a teacher who became the first face of carding. He described being stopped by police 30 times since 2001 without being ticketed.
Black communities in Toronto already suspected they were disproportionately stopped by police and had discussed it for decades, according to Anthony Morgan, a policy and research lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the Black experience,” he says. Yet data confirming the systemic nature of carding, and its extent, was new. “It helped me recognize this isn’t just a feeling that something is wrong with these interactions,” Morgan says. “These things were actually wrong, and I was being targeted. Up until then, it was difficult to feel comfortable saying that.”
John Sewell, coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and former mayor, says the story made his group realize this wasn’t happening randomly or from an individual officer. “This was a real strategy of the police force, and was something that was requiring all police officers to stop random people and record data about them.”
Despite interest from civil liberty groups, Rankin was underwhelmed by the public’s reaction to the series. He expected outrage from Torontonians. Instead, he says, it didn’t spark the city-wide conversation on carding that he’d hoped would occur. Rankin and the other reporters had taken only a month to put together the story, eager to publicize the racial disparity in carding stops, especially after waiting seven years for the data. The rush to release the series meant there wasn’t enough in-depth analysis. “What I didn’t think of at the time was other comparisons we could have done there,” Rankin says. Those included breaking the analysis down to a neighbourhood level and comparing the results. “We didn’t frame some of the questions the right way.” He believes they could have exposed the racial disparity in a more provocative manner.
The series also lacked the sort of wide-ranging personal experiences that would have conveyed the pain of being disproportionately carded. This was a significant flaw since many supporters of the practice saw it as a relatively harmless way of gathering information. The people who typically came to the Star to discuss encounters with police were often involved in legal disputes with the TPS. But the carding sources were everyday people affected by the practice and scared of the potential backlash of stepping into the spotlight, according to Patty Winsa, a general assignment reporter who worked on the series. “It was very difficult to get people to speak out,” she says. “So we didn’t personalize it enough.”
Eager to tackle the story with a new angle, Rankin filed another FOI request in 2011 to acquire updated carding data, as “Race Matters” included data only up until 2008. The March 2012 “Known to Police” series that came out of this FOI request finally brought carding the attention Rankin felt it deserved and forced politicians and police to address the practice. Rankin, Winsa and several multimedia journalists used the new information to present a provocative question: was it possible every young Black man in Toronto had been carded?
“A Star analysis of Toronto police stop data from 2008 to mid-2011 shows that the number of young black and brown males aged 15 to 24 documented in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones is greater than the actual number of young men of colour living in those areas,” the series noted. The ratio of Black men who were carded increased in predominantly white, affluent zones.
Rankin and Winsa also explored what carding meant to people in patrol zone 121, located in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood, an impoverished area of Toronto with a particularly high rate of carding. The series included interviews with Black youth and community workers from this area, immersing Star readers in the grim realities of carding, something Rankin felt past series had failed to do.
One of the officials he’d hoped would consider his reporting was Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) from 2005 to 2015. After the 2010 series, Mukherjee told Rankin, “I can’t explain to you why you see the pattern you see today, but come back to me in two years, and if we have not seen a change, then there will be some questions that we will need to answer.” Mukherjee was shocked to hear the disparity had increased and began pressing the TPS for change.
The Star, meanwhile, continued pushing carding as a story, although the most important addition to the next series came from two men outside of the publication. Williams filed an FOI request for his own carding data in June 2012. After receiving the data, he contacted his friend Knia Singh, a student at Osgoode Hall Law School, and urged him to do the same
Singh filed his request in December 2012, and then the two men contacted the Star. Williams believed working with the paper would be “beneficial to the community because the experiences of me and Knia intersect with the experiences of hundreds of thousands of other people.”
“Known to Police 2013,” published in September, told their stories and included powerful video interviews. The series stressed that both men are young, Black, without criminal records and active in their communities, and they still had been carded. Singh says the reaction to their front-page photos illustrates how important their stories were for shattering stereotypes about carding. “It looked like Chris and I were suspects in a crime, because you usually don’t see two Black people on the front cover unless they’ve committed a crime, right?” He adds, “Some friends of mine thought I had either committed a crime or was a victim of a crime until they read it.”
Just under a month later, the TPS released the Police And Community Engagement Review (PACER) report, suggesting substantive methods to work toward bias-free policing. Many of these suggestions were incorporated into a progressive carding policy reform the police board voted for in April 2014, and the number of contact cards issued had begun to drop the year before. A few months later, Rankin asked TPA president Mike McCormack what had caused the reduction. The union head responded, “There’s definitely a sense out there amongst my members that they don’t want to be the one that’s, quite frankly, on the cover of the Toronto Star.”
Civil rights organizations used the Star’s data analysis as ammunition to put pressure on the police. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in criminal justice at Indiana University who’s studying the views of Toronto police officers on race, says the Star had done a good job of reporting on anti-Black racism for years. Yet he also notes personal stories, common in the paper’s reporting before it obtained the databases, were typically ignored by police officials. “This type of data is often dismissed as being anecdotal because it’s individuals relaying their experiences.” But the databases provided quantitative evidence that was more difficult to dismiss, says Owusu-Bempah. “If it weren’t for the work of journalists, we would be much further behind in what we know now than we do.”
Shadya Yasin, a coordinator with the York Youth Coalition who works in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood, believes the reporting helped transform attitudes toward carding. “When the Black community speaks about carding, it’s just like, ‘Oh, look at those people, it’s just their issue,’” Yasin says. “But when the Star’s reporting came out, it actually gave proof and made it real to other people who think it’s always just Black people complaining about race issues.” Singh adds, “The reality is, if the journalists didn’t cover it, it would be a dead issue. It would be very easy for the police to just trample our rights, and we’d never have any recourse.”
These investigative series also opened the door for Black journalists, personally affected by carding, to vigorously report on the practice with the aid of quantitative evidence. The Star’s Royson James has tackled carding in his columns, especially starting in 2014, and helped put pressure on politicians to address the problem. In April 2014, the TPSB passed what many believed to be a progressive policy. A year later, the TPSB reversed many of these changes when it passed a new carding policy.
In June 2015, James argued that the dismantling of the 2014 reform was “beyond disturbing.” Noting citizens’ lack of trust in the political system, James wrote, “They do not want to hear from Mayor Tory on the issue. He symbolizes the problem.”
Singh says James’s reputation played a role in mobilizing Black Torontonians against carding. Williams agrees the columnist’s attacks on carding were crucial. “Royson James plays an important role in terms of conveying the deep-seated sentiments of large segments of the Black population in particular and marginalized populations more generally.”
Few other columnists discuss carding on a routine basis, according to James, who says, “He who feels it, knows it.” He believed he was the only one able to give Black communities in Toronto a voice they lacked in Canadian journalism. “I decided I was going to have to be that voice,” James says, noting a sense of personal responsibility.
James’s writing over the years inspired Desmond Cole, a freelance journalist who began reporting on carding after reading “Known to Police.” His personal essay in the May 2015 edition of Toronto Life left a mark on the city. Cole believes his piece was especially influential because of the magazine’s audience. “This was really not in their mode, so it really, really grabbed people’s attention,” he says. “It was sent into the homes of people who aren’t used to reading about these kinds of issues on a regular basis, or maybe never have.”
Cole’s view on the lack of public knowledge of carding, which others share, raises a serious question: stories about biased policing have existed for decades, so why did it take so long for mainstream journalists to cover the issue?
Owusu-Bempah doesn’t blame the Star for the delay, claiming the fault lies with police since they don’t regularly release carding data. And that information was of the utmost importance, according to Sewell: “It was that data that just blew things apart.” The Star’s coverage is invaluable, says Williams. “Any time you have journalistic work that disrupts the privilege of such a powerful public institution, I think that’s vitally important.”
Public discussion about carding reached new levels last October, when the province of Ontario proposed draft regulations to regulate carding and, many hope, to eventually ban random stops. Rankin is eager to see what will come of these regulations, though he believes systemic bias in policing will continue and, therefore, the reporting will as well.
Despite these concerns, the announcement marked the beginning of a happy few days for Rankin. Current and former colleagues emailed and called to congratulate him for his dedication to reporting on carding throughout the years. “It took a lot of Star resources and a really dogged team of journalists, editors, data gurus and bosses to keep on this issue,” Rankin says. “Because I am the only one still on it from our 2002 series, it feels extra special to be able to see it through to where we are today.”
One message particularly stood out. Rankin left work the day after the announcement, walked his dog and came home to a phone call. It was Scott Simmie, one of five journalists who worked on “Race and Crime.” Simmie told his former colleague that his reporting was a legacy. “It hadn’t hit me until that,” Rankin says. “You’re lucky in this job if you can look back and say there’s something that we did that made a difference. That’s definitely one of them.”
As they chatted, people around Toronto picked up copies of the Star with a front page filled with an article from Rankin, a photo of Singh and a column from Cole. The headline blazed across the page in large, capitalized print and announced just how significant their work had been: “Random Carding: The End.”
Davide is the blog editor of the spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He also works as an associate editor for the Islamic Monthly. Davide's articles have appeared in numerous publications including Al Jazeera America, The Globe and Mail and the National Post.