60% of Toronto arrests lead to strip searches

More than 60 per cent of people arrested by Toronto police last year were forced to undergo a strip search, according to police statistics.
The Toronto Police Accountability Coalition says police should not perform strip searches as a matter of routine. (Canadian Press)

More than 60 per cent of people arrested by Toronto police last year were forced to undergo a strip search, according to police statistics.

But a police accountability group says routine searches are against the law and alleges Toronto police are using the practice to humiliate and intimidate people.

Police figures show that 31,072 people were strip-searched in 2010, up from 29,789 the previous year.

John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC) said that means about 60 per cent of those arrested in Toronto were subjected to a strip search.

Sewell said such widespread strip searching by police flies in the face of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that declared such searches are intrusive, humiliating and should not be performed as a matter of routine.

'It should not be happening'

"I tend to think that it’s being done for the purpose of belittling and humiliating people," Sewell told CBC News. "I think it's being done for a bad purpose and should not be happening."

Police officials refused to discuss the issue with CBC News. But at the last meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), Chief Bill Blair denied such searches were routine. At the meeting, he told Sewell that routine would mean everyone was strip searched.

The stats also show that in two-thirds of these searches, police found nothing. Sewell said this raises more alarm bells. He said if police are doing a proper pat-down or thorough frisk — called a level two search — there should be no need to order people to take off their clothes.

"If the purpose of strip-searches is to see if someone is hiding something in their underwear you would find that if you do a pat down," he said. "But they don't do that, they say they are simply going to do a strip search on you."

Sewell's group wants the TPSB to rein in police to ensure they follow the law.

The board has asked the chief for a report on its policies and practices on searches and how they could be improved.

In Windsor, Ont., meanwhile, the city police department's practice of strip searching as many as half the suspects they arrest in drug cases was criticized by a Superior Court judge Tuesday.

Judge Renee Pomerance ruled four drug suspects were illegally searched two years ago and said it was disturbing that police failed to keep records of the incident, the Windsor Star reported Wednesday.

"I am very troubled by the conduct of the police," the Star quoted Pomerance as saying. "The police did violate the charter rights of the four persons. These violations are serious."