There’s a local stand-up comedian, who also happens to be a lawyer, a doctor, and an accomplished actor – but that’s neither here nor there. In one of his stand-up bits, he speaks of his time as duty counsel. He says “I keep telling my clients exactly what they need to do to avoid being arrested and criminally charged. I tell them to stop being Black and poor. But, for some reason, they just won’t listen.”

The case of the Neptune Four is a perfect example of how Black people, including Black children, can try to do everything right and still be arrested and charged for the “crime” of being Black and poor. It also raises a number of important questions about what we, as a society, are doing to ensure the safety and security of members of Ontario’s Black communities.

Exactly ten years ago, on the evening of November 21, 2011, four Black friends (two of them brothers) – aged 15 and 16 – are playing video games at one of their homes. The kids live with their families in social housing at 135 and 145 Neptune Drive in Toronto’s Lawrence Heights community.

Just before 6 pm, they leave 145 Neptune Drive to attend Pathways to Education, a tutoring and mentoring program, at a school across the street.

As they’re leaving, two police officers – who are part of the now-defunct Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) – stop them and ask them to identify themselves. Why? It’s unclear. The kids remember the officers saying something about two robberies that happened nearby.

The officers, on the other hand, maintain that they stop and question the four kids because they’re enforcing the Trespass to Property Act. It’s worth noting here that (1) the kids live in the buildings and (2) they’re walking off the property when police stop them.

One of the children has recently attended a “know your rights” session put on by the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN). OJEN is an organization that, among other things, brings together volunteer judges and lawyers to help kids understand the law and build their legal capability. Applying his recently acquired knowledge, he exercises his rights and asks whether he is under arrest or is free to leave.

Within seconds, one of the officers pushes, arrests, and punches him in the head. The 15-year old is quickly brought to the ground. When two of the other three kids move closer to try to intervene, the officer pulls his gun on them. The officers call for back-up. Four more police cars arrive on the scene. The police arrest the children and charge them with assaulting the police.

At 15, one of the kids is strip-searched and spends a night in jail. The kids are caught up in the criminal justice system for almost a year, until Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) security video surfaces showing the police encounter. The Crown withdraws the charges.

This isn’t the first time the kids have been stopped and questioned by police. In fact, three of them testify later that, over the course of their young lives, police have stopped and questioned them between 30 and 50 times. According to one of the kids, however, this incident teaches him not to try to exercise his rights when interacting with police – that giving up his dignity is worth not getting assaulted.

The kids, with the help of community supports, file a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). While the entire incident lasts less than one minute, the complaint process takes almost 10 years to resolve. In that time, the kids become young men, begin university, and start businesses. Sadly, in 2018, one of them is the victim of a homicide. He is only 22 when he dies.

The result of the 10-year long complaint process? The Toronto Police Service disciplinary tribunal finds both police officers guilty of misconduct for making an unlawful or unnecessary arrest and one of them guilty for using unreasonable force. For this, they are docked 15 days’ pay collectively.

Contrast this with what happened to three TCHC managers and three staff who are accused of supplying the surveillance video of the arrest that exonerated the Neptune Four to the Toronto Star in 2012. In 2013, only two still had their jobs.

Surely, a police officer assaulting and unnecessarily arresting children is worthy of more reproach than a member of the TCHC leaking footage of the assault and arrest. What does this say about the efficacy of the province’s police oversight bodies? What does this say about the value we place on Black children and Black lives in Ontario?

And it doesn’t end there. To this day, notwithstanding the racialization of poverty and decades of evidence of racial profiling and abuse by the police, TCHC continues to engage the Toronto Police Service with “agent of the landlord” agreements or Trespass to Property Act authorization letters. These give police the authority to control access to TCHC property, including by TCHC tenants. It means that – despite the discontinuation of the practice of carding – police continue to behave as if they have the power to stop, question, and demand information from poor Black people who are doing nothing more than coming or going to their own homes. Why is a social housing provider facilitating the abuse of human rights in this way?

In 2020, the Ontario Human Rights Commission reported that charges against Black people are more likely to be withdrawn and less likely to result in conviction. The Commission said this raises systemic concerns about police charging practices. As noted above, following the release of surveillance footage, the Crown withdrew charges against the kids.

Just two weeks ago, Pierre Bonsu, a Toronto-based lawyer, posted to social media that police tackled, arrested and charged another Black teenager because a police officer saw him holding a bloody knife but lied and said he saw the teen stabbing someone with it. According to Bonsu, the teen in fact wrested the knife away from someone who was trying to rob him and cut himself in the process. The teen was facing up to 14 years in prison. After a DNA test revealed that the blood on the knife belonged to the teen, the Crown withdrew the charges.

How many other Black people, Black teenagers, Black children, are in jail because members of the police service are lying, or making unlawful or unnecessary arrests? With the province, cutting funding to Legal Aid Ontario by $133 million (30%) in 2019, while continuously increasing police budgets, how can poor Black people and the lawyers representing them possibly afford to do the investigative work required to exonerate and free themselves? How can we consider this fight fair? How can we call this justice?

Further, the cost of detaining an adult before trial is about $183 a day. Aside from the trauma that police are inflicting on Black people, if we take into account the cost associated with other justice system actors like Crowns, justices of the peace, judges, and duty counsel, how much is racist policing actually costing us?

The Neptune Four is far from the first case of Black people experiencing heightened surveillance and police brutality for the crime of walking, driving and simply living while Black. And as the last 10 years have shown us, it most certainly isn’t the last. So perhaps the most important question is – when will we stop making it a crime to be poor and Black?