Social media post raises concerns about Fredericton police identifying youth as suspects
'Legal and ethical issues' with police posting images of suspects who could be under 18, says child advocate
Concerns are being raised about privacy protection for minors after the Fredericton Police Force posted an image on Facebook of what appears to be two teenagers they said were "suspects in a theft."
The force says social media can be a useful tool for helping find suspects in crimes they're investigating, but experts say it shouldn't come at the expense of privacy rights, especially when it involves persons under 18.
"It raises significant legal and ethical issues," New Brunswick child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock said in an interview.
On Feb. 19, the police force posted an image on Facebook asking the public for help identifying "two persons of interest, who are suspects in a theft." The image appears to be from security camera footage from inside an unknown retail store.
Their ages are unknown, but they both appear to be teenagers.
The Fredericton Police Force didn't know their ages when they posted the image of them on Facebook, said spokesperson Sonya Gilks.
In an email, Gilks said when the image was posted, the force was unsure of their identities and ages, which is why they appealed to the public through their Facebook page, which has more than 45,000 followers.
"Once they were positively identified, the post was removed as per our policy," Gilks said.
Gilks declined to share that policy with CBC News and said it would have to be obtained through a request under the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Gilks also declined to say how old the suspects are, citing "privacy" concerns.
Wade Kierstead, manager of service transformation for the force, in a follow up email said no charges have been laid in connection to the alleged theft.
Potential for bullying, damage to reputation
Lamrock said Canadian legislation has for decades recognized that special treatment should be afforded to youth accused of crimes.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act is the latest iteration of that and applies to youth who are older than 12, and younger than 18, who are alleged to have committed criminal offences.
A "cornerstone" of the act is the protection of the identity of anyone who's subject to it, according to the federal Department of Justice.
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Lamrock said the protections afforded under the act are what make the police force's post so concerning, both legally and ethically.
"Social media is an investigative tool. There is a public benefit to police work, and everyone would acknowledge that, but it needs to be carefully and thoughtfully balanced with the fact that social media also has significant consequences," Lamrock said.
"You could be holding people up for harassment, for bullying, for a life full of images that could be circulated. You could potentially find out that you have the wrong person. You could have mistaken identity."
The use of social media by police to help find suspects is problematic in general, according to Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law.
However, the practice becomes more contentious when it involves young people.
"It invades privacy, it risks getting the wrong people, it risks reputational damage, those kinds of things," MacKay said.
"But if you, in fact, are dealing with images of minors, people who are under the age of 18, then these are more vulnerable people, as is recognized in the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and you should be even more cautious."
MacKay said based on the wording in the act, it's unclear whether youth who've not yet been charged with a crime would be subject to its protections.
However, he said police forces should take extra precautions regardless.
"As a matter of good policing practice and the proper balance of crime control and protecting people's rights, it would be better to err on the side of not possibly exposing young people to those kinds of damages [to their reputation]."
Weighing public interest
The Fredericton force isn't the only police department in New Brunswick that elicits the public's help in identifying suspects through posting their images on social media.
Woodstock Police Chief Gary Forward said his force does the same.
But he said if the suspects are potentially under the age of 18, officers carefully weigh privacy rights with their responsibility to protect public safety.
Forward said an assault or homicide investigation might be serious enough to warrant an image of a suspect being shared online.
In the case of an investigation into something more minor like theft, however, Forward said that option would be weighed much more carefully if the suspect might be under 18.
"If you had a very low-level matter, you know, police forces would be encouraged to carefully consider the release" of an image, he said.
Cpl. Stéphane Esculier, spokesperson for the New Brunswick RCMP, said the force shares images of suspects online when officers have exhausted all other options to try to find them.
As in Woodstock, Esculier said the severity of the crime, and whether the suspect might be a minor, weigh heavily on whether that's ultimately done.
"If we're really unsure the age of the subject, I think it would have to be decided if it's in the best interest of the public … to get that picture out," he said.
"If we know for sure youth is involved, that changes our our approach for sure."