TORONTO — Hundreds of citizens were documented by police in mostly non-criminal encounters during last year’s G20 summit — and their names and personal details still live on in an internal police database.
Over three days, more than 500 people were stopped, questioned and documented by Toronto police officers in key G20 patrol areas downtown and near a temporary jail location, according to an analysis of police contact card data obtained by the Toronto Star in a freedom of information request.
Police use the database as an investigative tool to connect people, places and times. For example, in the case of a homicide, detectives can enter a victim’s name and see who they associated with in the past — and where and when.
The level of “carding” was unusually high during the summit, which could be expected given the police presence.
On an average day in those areas in 2008, police documented 75 people, according to baseline data. But from June 25 to 27, 2010 — the summit weekend — the daily average was 186. That’s an increase of 150 per cent.
Sunday was the busiest day of the G20 weekend for carding; 235 people were documented.
White men were most often stopped, according to the data. This comes as little surprise to anyone who was out on the streets of downtown Toronto that weekend. Young men, particularly those dressed in dark clothing, drew heavy police attention following a rampage by a small number of violent protesters dressed in black.
Police were busy documenting people at a number of spots, including the area around the Bay Street bus terminal, where out-of-town protesters boarded buses for home, and at subway exits near Queen’s Park.
Eighty-five per cent of those documented were male, with an average age of 30. The average age of women documented was 28.
The police service had no specific comment for this story, but spokesperson Mark Pugash said Chief Bill Blair addressed the issue of police documenting citizens in a 2009 interview and that his word are “as relevant today as they were then.”
In that interview, Blair said: “We’re recording an interaction — that we’ve had contact with you — and we place limitations on what that information is used for and how it can be used.”
Blair said documenting citizens in certain, non-criminal interactions is a valuable tool and that the vast majority of the collected data is never accessed.
Police collect names, ages, names of associates, dates of birth and in some encounters place of birth. Police also note the individual’s skin colour as being white, black, brown or “other.”
The data also indicates the reason for the stop. Police choose from a list of coded reasons. The most common reason is for “general investigation,” followed by “suspicious activity.” Collecting information for the intelligence unit is another reason, albeit less frequently cited.
In most of these encounters, the people police document are not arrested or charged and are likely unaware that their personal information has become part of an internal database.
It’s important to note that the contact card data obtained by the Star does not indicate which stops were related to policing the G20, and certainly not all of them were. Encounters with panhandlers and emotionally disturbed people are also included.
But the level of carding during the summit was much higher than normal in five key G20 police patrol areas, including the Queen’s Park area, downtown pockets near the summit venues and a temporary jail on Eastern Avenue.
The data does not include any stops or documenting of citizens done by other police services involved in summit security.
Documenting citizens in non-criminal encounters is nothing new. Toronto police have been doing this for decades. Other police services do the same.
Police fill out the personal information on pocket-sized cards called Field Information Reports, and the resulting data is entered into a searchable database that is not subject to any purging requirements.
A total of 1,105 people were arrested during the G20, 113 of whom were let go at the scene with no charge. It was the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Many who were charged saw their charges dropped or stayed.
Summit policing — overseen by an integrated security unit that included Toronto police, RCMP and OPP — has been widely criticized as heavy-handed and is the subject of numerous investigations.
A number of groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, continue to call for a full public inquiry.
Graeme Norton, director of the CCLA’s Public Safety Project, says the police carding practice and storage of personal data, in general, is worrisome.
“What happens with that information is a big question, and retaining it in a police database, accessing it for investigative purposes raises a number of very troubling issues for us,” said Norton.
“This is personal information about individuals that can be quite revealing. They may not even know it exists.”