A law enforcement agency, any law enforcement agency, is, by its very nature, a blunt force instrument. Individual members may vary in intelligence and ability but as a collective, police departments are not famous for discrimination, or subtlety, or nuanced thought. First of all, they are huge bureaucracies. Most cops spend most of their time doing paper work.
And mammoth bureaucracies keep track of things. They store, monitor and often pass on huge amounts of information to other law enforcement agencies. They have to. Lawbreakers respect no borders, no frontiers. Information, co-operation, inter-agency intelligence sharing, are crucial.
The information collected, archived and traded can and often does, lead to the arrest of dangerous criminals.But a lot depends on the kind of information that is gathered. And the way it is passed along.
It turns out that police forces across this country keep every shred of contact you may have ever had with the cops, going back to your teen years. And even if you've never done anything wrong, never been convicted of any crime, what's in those police files can, if made known, ruin your life.
Thanks to some remarkable investigative reporting by Robert Cribb of The Toronto Star, we now know how extensive that damage can be. His reporting has stunned readers, politicians, civil rights activists and lawyers. Cribb and The Star wanted to find out how many innocent people have been harmed by police checks asked for by employers, volunteer groups, school boards, licensing agencies. In Toronto alone, there were 110,000 requests for police checks last year.This is an increase of 92 per cent over five years ago.
In one particularly craven example, the Toronto District School Board is toying with the idea of police checks for parents who volunteer for field trips for the kids, or playground monitoring, or coaching a sport.
Reporter Cribb interviewed people across the country. In one case, a British Columbia woman who had made four 911 calls, was turned down when she applied to be a volunteer dog walker. Others were turned away from universities, jobs in the public service, harassed at the border.
A few months ago, we told you about a woman who had attempted suicide years ago and who was turned back at the US-Canada border because the RCMP had her name on file and passed it along to US border authorities. These are people who have never been charged with anything or if charged, had the charges withdrawn. Or they simply were found by the cops to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Not only is the storing, retrieval and publishing of the names of vulnerable people a denial of the right to privacy and the right to confront one's accusers, it turns out that police checks are pretty useless when it comes to deciding a person's fitness for a job.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that one in three Canadians may be affected by the actions of police forces. The John Howard Society has said that the release of non-conviction records erodes the presumption of innocence. Even the cops themselves are concerned to some degree.
In February,The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police proposed legislation which would prohibit disclosure of non-conviction information. It is an issue which should be taken up by legislators at every level.
One in three innocent Canadians. That could be more than eleven million of us. Think about that the next time you apply somewhere to oversee a class field trip, or try to fly to Florida.