Kitchener-Waterloo

Women in custody are more likely than men to be strip searched, Waterloo regional police data shows

Women in custody were more likely to be strip searched than men in 2022, a Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) report shows.

The data specifically applies to what the police call “level one” strip searches

Police cruiser parked in downtown Kitchener
The new data is a part of a report that came out earlier this month. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Women in custody were more likely to be strip searched than men in 2022, a Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) report shows. 

According to the report presented at a police board meeting earlier this month, women are 1.75 times more likely to be strip searched than men. This specifically refers to a "level one" search, which is when someone in custody is required to remove their clothes down to their undergarments. 

"If I was to talk to the officers about this, they would say something like, 'Well, you know, women often have clothing where you could hide things,'" said Amanda Williams. She is the manager of the WRPS strategic services branch and has a PhD in Social Psychology from York University.

"So, there's the operational aspect behind that as well that … I can't really pull out on this data in any kind of meaningful way."

There were a total of 4,413 searches of people in custody in 2022, WRPS data shows, from a frisk to a strip search "level two" — where the removal of all clothing is required.

Women in custody experienced 55 "level one" strip searches in 2022, compared to 155 that were done on men, the data shows. In total, 11 items were found during the searches on women.

For strip search "level two," where all clothes must be removed, including undergarments, there are no disparities when comparing women to men, at a rate of 0.83 — a data point Williams said she is "encouraged by" because there are "not very many."

"Instead of having undergarments removed, officers are opting not to do that which is actually pretty decent."

Effectiveness?

Portrait of Jessica Hutchison.
Jessica Hutchison, a tenure track social work professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, says that strip searches are akin to sexual violence. (Submitted by Jessica Hutchison)

Jessica Hutchison is a tenure track social work professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. She researched strip searches which were performed on women in the criminal justice system as part of her PhD and equates strip searches to "sexual violence." 

"In any other context, the forcing people to remove their clothes and to perform actions with intimate body parts against their will would be considered sexual violence," Hutchison told CBC News. "But in the context of policing and prison it's not seen as such because it is actually enshrined within legislation and policy."     

A WRPS spokesperson said that women are exclusively strip searched by other women, but Hutchison still sees it as an issue regardless of the gender of the person searching.

"Whether it's a woman doing it to another woman, the power dynamics are still there," she said. 

Hutchison said she would like to see the practice dismantled because of what she sees as a lack of effectiveness at finding items. 

Williams, on the other hand, believes that the data shows that the method is effective, particularly for the "level two" strip search. Of the 706 total strip searches done against women and men in custody in 2022, WRPS found 58 items — 47 of those are for "level two" searches.

Williams explained that they don't arbitrarily decide to thoroughly search someone; they may do this if they believe someone may have fentanyl on them, for example, which she said could harm others, or if the person has a history with WRPS and might know where to hide items during a lighter search.

"You can imagine the uproar, and rightfully so, if we have people dying in custody because police didn't show due diligence in making sure that [it] was as safe a space as possible."

Racial disparities

The same report showed that Black and Middle Eastern people were more than twice as likely to be searched in the region while in custody in 2022.

According to the report, Black residents are 2.34 times more likely to be searched while in custody compared to the regional population, and Middle Eastern people are 2.33 times more likely to experience the same.

When compared to the region's white population, CBC News has calculated and confirmed that Black and Middle Eastern people are still more than twice as likely to be searched at a rate of 2.25 and 2.24 respectively using the region's population as a benchmark.

Under the Ontario Anti-Racism Act, all police services in the province are required to collect, analyze and report race-based data in order to address systemic racism in law enforcement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Chaarani

Reporter/Editor

James Chaarani is a reporter/editor for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach him at james.chaarani@cbc.ca.

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