New policing powers announced by the provincial government on Friday as part of a strengthened stay-at-home order to help stem a rising number of COVID-19 cases will be “modified,” says the group that represents police chiefs in Ontario.
“The measures announced yesterday will be modified. We are awaiting to officially receive what the modifications are so that our chiefs can ensure their officers can continue to serve their communities during these difficult times,” the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) said in a statement on Saturday.
“As you have seen from many of our services during the past day, our first and highest obligation is to respect and protect all members of our communities throughout Ontario when it comes to their well-being and safety.”
The new powers allow police to stop people at random and ask why they are not at home and where they live.
The association said it is continuing to talk to the provincial government about the new enforcement measures.
“Our chiefs have been engaged collectively [through OACP] and individually with the government to ensure that there is clarity for both our police officers and our communities on the new measures,” the association continued.
Police services across Ontario say they won’t comply
The statement comes after several police services across Ontario said they won’t comply with new powers to stop people and question their purpose for leaving home during the COVID-19 lockdown.
On Friday, a number of police services took to social media to say they have no intention of conducting “random” stops.
The announcements have largely been welcomed by people online, but others — including author and activist Desmond Cole, who has been outspoken on issues of police racism and use of force — are skeptical that it’s anything more than a public relations tactic.
“All police are saying is, ‘If we stop you, it will be for a good reason,'” Cole told CBC News.
“That doesn’t help members of the public, Black and Indigenous people, people without a place to stay right now who are outside, disabled people who are always targeted by the police. It doesn’t give us any comfort.”
Saturday marked the first day of at least four weeks of enhanced policing powers introduced by the provincial government in an attempt to curb an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases.
The new powers ostensibly enable police to ask anyone outside, including drivers of vehicles, to indicate their purpose for leaving home and to provide their address. A ticket if individuals refused would cost $750.
Cole said he sees the orders as an attempt by Premier Doug Ford to shift blame as COVID-19 cases rise and more “people are scared.”
“Premier Ford needs a scapegoat,” he said. “So just as he did last April, he’s saying individuals will now be punished for being outside.”
And yet the growing list of police services would indicate many forces don’t want to take on that responsibility.
‘Don’t make cops the bad guys here!’
The president of the Peel Regional Police Association, for example, took to Twitter to urge the government: “Don’t make cops the bad guys here!”
In a subsequent statement, Peel Regional Police confirmed it would not conduct “random vehicle or individual stops.”
Police in the Ontario municipalities of Toronto, Hamilton, Peterborough, London, Waterloo, Niagara, Ottawa, York Region, Windsor and Cornwall have all released similar statements.
“We would be foolish to take them at their word,” Cole said, noting that most of the statements mention “random” stops.
“The government order doesn’t use the word ‘random,'” he said, “so the police are denying doing something that wasn’t in the order.”
We are reviewing the new provincial <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> regulations. <br><br>Peterborough Police will continue to be complaints-driven in our response to the increased provincial measures, that means we will not be randomly stopping people.<a href=”https://t.co/PXVmxwFDuh”>https://t.co/PXVmxwFDuh</a> <a href=”https://t.co/Io1BJnjvxm”>pic.twitter.com/Io1BJnjvxm</a>
Our plan is to continue to engage, explain, educate & enforce in a fair & unbiased manner. We will not be randomly stopping people. Our goal is to put an end to COVID-19 & we ask for the community’s support. We will release a fuller statement tomorrow when details known. 2/2
A spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police, which is tasked with enforcing interprovincial border closures and has also been empowered to conduct random checks, said the force is “still working out the logistics and details.” It expects to share more with the public about its enforcement approach in the coming days.
CBC News has reached out to the solicitor general’s office for comment but has yet to receive a response.
In his statement, Ottawa Police Service Chief Peter Sloly said the force is being “very mindful of the perception of the broader public as well as within our more marginalized, racialized and/or Indigenous/Aboriginal/Inuit peoples.”
He said the police do “not want these powers to impact public trust.”
Toronto police, which initially said it needed more time to review the changes, tweeted on Saturday morning that it “will continue to engage, educate and enforce, but we will not be doing random stops of people or cars.”
“Prior to any change in our enforcement strategy, we will notify the public on how we plan to implement the new provincial orders,” its spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Toronto police declined to answer a question from CBC News about where this leaves people legally, given that an individual officer could still decide to pull over a person randomly and the law would be on their side, despite the force’s official position statements.
The spokesperson referred reporters to the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and declined to answer whether Toronto police were in contact with the provincial government about its approach to random stops.
CBC News has reached out to the police chiefs association for comment.
The London Police Services Board said it has “serious concerns” about whether the provincial government’s expanded police powers are even constitutional.
“We cannot enforce our way out of the pandemic,” Dr. Javeed Sukhera, the board’s chair, said in a statement released on Saturday.
Sukhera said the board “would encourage the provincial government to shift their focus to stabilizing the health system, ensuring equitable access to vaccines and following the advice of health experts.”
Expanded police powers raise alarm bells
The expanded police powers have quickly raised alarm bells across the province.
“It’s a Black Friday of rights slashing by Queen’s Park,” Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), said in a statement on Friday.
On Saturday, the CCLA issued a statement saying it has retained counsel and is preparing to go to court in the coming days to challenge the new policing regulations.
“We are bringing a challenge as quickly as possible, in order to restore people’s freedom from arbitrary police stops,” Bryant, a former Liberal attorney general in Ontario, said in the statement.
“The regulation brings back the odious ‘driving while Black’ police stop and introduces a ‘walking while Black’ offence. This is formalized, legalized carding.”
He called random police stops “unconstitutional” since they wouldn’t be “indiscriminate, stopping everyone in a single location,” like a RIDE program does.
“Blanket powers for police to stop vehicles like this bends our constitutional freedoms too far and will cause a rash of racial profiling,” Bryant said.
Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie tweeted his own reaction, saying he’ll be “checking out our Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]” and that the city will be reviewing it.
“I’m concerned about this,” his tweet said. “Either way, we’re not going to be policing our way out of this pandemic, that’s for sure.”
In Toronto, Mayor John Tory tweeted that he was “very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time.” He later tweeted his gratitude that Toronto police will not be conducting random stops.
False! Our members will NOT be conducting random vehicle or individual stops for the sole purpose of enforcing the EMCPA. Sorry <a href=”https://twitter.com/SylviaJonesMPP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SylviaJonesMPP</a> & <a href=”https://twitter.com/fordnation?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@fordnation</a> that will not be happening in Peel. Don’t make cops the bad guys here! <a href=”https://t.co/IsgKNbKVP5″>https://t.co/IsgKNbKVP5</a>
This new Provincial order that says “police can stop people & ask them what they’re up to” stuff. <br>I’m checking our Charter out on that one. <br>I’m concerned about this & we’re reviewing it. <br>Either way, we’re not going to be policing our way out of this pandemic, that’s for sure.
I am very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time and I will be reviewing the regulations extremely carefully and discussing them with the Medical Officer of Health and the Toronto Police Chief.