Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., searched the COVID-19 status of every call for service from April to July
Civil rights groups ask why Thunder Bay police, alone, made policy to conduct search on every call
Thunder Bay police say they were the most intensive users of Ontario's COVID-19 database last spring because they had a policy to check the COVID-19 status of everyone who called for service — a policy that is raising new questions from civil rights groups.
The police service was pressed in August by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Aboriginal Legal Services for answers as to why it used the COVID-19 database 14,800 times between April 17 and July 22. It's a rate that is ten times the average number of searches by other police forces across the province.
"It was determined it was for a proper purpose every single time" because Thunder Bay police had created a policy to search the COVID-19 status for every call for service, Holly Walbourne, the Thunder Bay police service lawyer, said at a police board meeting on Sept. 15.
Now the civil rights groups want to know why Thunder Bay police was the only police service in Ontario to create such an expansive policy on the use of the database.
"Other police services took a much more tailored approach," said Abby Deshman, the criminal justice program director for the CCLA. "Part of what we're asking for here is some critical self-reflection."
The database was shut down in July after the CCLA and other groups launched a legal challenge over concerns that giving police access to health information was an unreasonable breach of privacy.
- Why were police in Thunder Bay, Ont. so curious about your COVID-19 status?
- Ontario ends police access to COVID-19 database after legal challenge
The infringement of privacy rights would be especially felt by Indigenous and Black people who have more contact with police and more barriers to accessing health care because of systemic racism, Deshman said.
'Trust and transparency'
Thunder Bay police have a special responsibility to explain their policy decisions because of the need to build trust with the Indigenous population, said Christa Big Canoe, the legal director for Aboriginal Legal Services.
"This is about trust and transparency," Big Canoe told the police services board, citing Senator Murray Sinclair's report on systemic racism within the board, called Broken Trust. "You have to take into account that Thunder Bay was the only police service in the province that used [the database] at this high a rate."
Walbourne said there was a shortage of personal protective equipment in Thunder Bay at the beginning of the pandemic and police officers needed to be "very cautious and very frugal" about when they used it."
But police services were told by the province that the database was inaccurate and not up-to-date, said Deshman.
"Even if the database was reliable, I don't understand why you would have to search it for every single call for service," she said, adding that police officers do not attend every call in person and would always have the option of asking a person if they were feeling unwell or had been tested for COVID-19.
The high rate of searches by Thunder Bay police is also incongruent with the low number of COVID-19 cases in the city, compared to other cities in the province, Big Canoe said.
But Walbourne said that could be a reason why Thunder Bay police found the tool more useful than others.
"We used it more because it was manageable," she said. It may have created "too much data for a city with a higher population."
Desham said the police service and its board can expect another letter from the CCLA asking for them to explain the decisions that went into creating the policy encouraging such intensive use of the database.
- An earlier version of this story stated that Thunder Bay police checked the COVID-19 database 148,000 times. The correct number is 14,800.Sep 18, 2020 10:04 AM ET