Sask. Police Commission to review ‘street check’ policy in 2024; human rights commission finds lack of public understanding

GREG PENDER/SASKATOON STARPHOENIX. About 60 people gathered in Pleasant Hill Park to rally against the practice of police carding before marching to City Hall, March 15, 2016. Two police service members briefly visited the rally as well.

The Saskatchewan Police Commission says it’ll undertake a review in 2024

Thia James, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The provincial policing body that oversees standards for city police says it’s reviewing a report recently released by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission that found members of the public lack understanding about the policing practice commonly known as “street checks” or “carding,” and that their participation is voluntary.

Saskatchewan Police Commission chair Mark Vanstone said in a statement that it plans to conduct an audit and review of police-based “contact interview” practices in conjunction with the policy in the new year.

Further information about what this will entail isn’t yet available.

The SPC introduced a policy governing “contact interviews” in 2018 and municipal police services created internal policies to apply it.

The SPC policy was to address concerns about the practice, where a police officer stops a person on the street to ask them to identify themselves and answer other questions unrelated to an investigation. Indigenous people were disproportionately subjected to stops.

The policy set out that participation in a “contact interview” is voluntary, not mandatory, and the stops can’t be random or arbitrary or based solely on the person’s demographic factors, such as race or gender.

Police can only do a “contact interview” for one of three reasons: when there’s no apparent reason for someone to be in a particular place (such as a closed commercial area after hours), when the person’s conduct is a cause for safety concerns, or if they appear to need help.

The SHRC spoke to several community organizations when preparing the report and found many people aren’t sure why they’re being approached by police; many believe they’re detained whenever they’re talking to a police officer and that they have to do what the officer says.

Advocates and representatives from community groups reported that people who’ve been stopped generally say the tactic is a tool of racial profiling, intimidation and discrimination.

Among its findings, the SHRC also suggested more training for police, found uncertainty around the prevalence and use of “contact interviews” and that there’s a lack of trust between police and “certain” communities, namely Indigenous and racialized people.

Researcher Scott Thompson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, said “tiny” changes in policy and language around what is and is not a “street check” don’t affect the public’s perception.

“And that’s really where we have to focus: the general understandings that the public has, the harms that they’re experiencing and how we can alleviate or ensure that those harms aren’t happening within our community,” Thompson said.

He’s leading a team at the University of Saskatchewan looking at the use of carding by police on the Prairies. The report’s findings are similar to the materials reviewed so far in their ongoing work, especially when it comes to what people are experiencing, he said.

Thompson said police are very specific with their policies and the public doesn’t share that same understanding or nuance.

“That lack of communication and clarity from the police service is making people experience harm from these processes when they’re not fully understanding what their rights are or what type of stop they’re being subject to,” Thompson said.

Metis Nation-Saskatchewan president Glen McCallum said he’s glad some initiative has been taken by the human rights commission to look into this, but he wants more information and discussion.

MN-S is meeting with city mayors in the new year and the theme at next year’s Back to Batoche gathering will be ‘nations coming together.’ The topic of police stops would “absolutely” have to be one of the issues discussed, he said.

“We need to have more discussion on this so that we can all be on the same page with regards to addressing it.”

The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police raised a concern about data used by the SHRC that predates the introduction of the policy.

SACP president Richard Lowen, who is also Estevan’s police chief, said the association wants to take a closer look at the data to ensure recent changes, such as police initiatives to improve relations in the community, are considered. He said he thinks police in Saskatchewan are doing a good job.

“We have the ability to look at the data they collected and we have the ability to gather the information that hasn’t been looked at to make sure it’s comprehensive and covers everyone in all the communities,” Lowen said.

The SHRC’s interim commissioner, Barry Wilcox, in a statement, said while the reported statistics on “contact interviews” indicate broad compliance with policy, the report shows some community members don’t feel this has been the case.

The commission considers the review and the work done to date to be the “beginning of a process of further improvement,” he said. “It may take time, dedication, and open dialogue between all parties involved to resolve the issues detailed in the report,” Wilcox said in the statement.

The Saskatoon police annual report on street checks, released earlier this year, said 16 verified “contact interviews” were recorded in 2022. Officers submitted 59 contact interview reports, but upon review by supervisors, 43 were deemed not to be contact interviews under the policy.

In a statement the force said sometimes officers leave a report about interactions that may fall outside of the policy’s criteria, which are then corrected.

Among the stops that fall outside of the definition and policy are “normal” social interactions, detentions for an investigative purpose authorized by law, and contacts made under a specific statutory authority, such as the provincial traffic safety act.