Toronto

Toronto police aiming to buy full-body scanner by early 2020 to cut back on strip searches

Toronto police are hoping to start using body scanners, a potential replacement for strip searches, by early 2020 — but critics say the technology still amounts to an invasion of privacy.

Critics say technology is just 'different kind of privacy invasion' as force seeks bids

Toronto police are hoping to start using body scanners, a potential replacement for strip searches, by early 2020 — but critics say the technology still amounts to an invasion of privacy. (Toronto Police Service)

Toronto police are hoping to start using body scanners, a potential replacement for strip searches, by early 2020 — but critics say the technology still amounts to an invasion of privacy.

The force has launched a request for proposals for a three-year contract to provide at least one full-body scanner, and potentially up to 10 of the devices, according to public tender documents.

The Toronto Police Service "is committed to increasing the level of dignity and respect provided during our search process," the documents read. 

The request also notes the force has been faced with "a number of civil claims, external complaints, Special Investigation Unit investigations, and Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario applications" tied to level three physical searches, which are commonly known as strip searches because they involve removing some or all of a person's clothing.

When asked for comment by CBC Toronto, Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne said the force can't share details on the project or its budget because the procurement process is in motion, only noting the service will be "moving forward."

In 2018, the force's 14 Division — one of the busiest in the city — held a six-month pilot project to test the technology, which scans a subject's body to potentially reveal evidence such as weapons or drugs.

The trial run gave the team "an opportunity to train officers, draft procedures and consult with officers and members of the community," Osborne said.

The models used by police officers differ from the types of scanners common at many airports. Instead of people raising their arms like you'd see in an airport security line, subjects hold their arms out to the side, resting on the machine's handles.

The first purchased body scanner is also slated for 14 Division, and there's hope the devices could reduce the force's high number of strip searches.

A report from one of Ontario's police watchdogs found Toronto officers use strip searches far more often than other forces across the province — at close to 40 per cent of arrests, compared to under one per cent for other large forces. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Critics warn of police 'obsession' with invasive searches

Earlier this year, a report from one of Ontario's police watchdogs found Toronto officers use the tactic far more often than other forces across the province — at close to 40 per cent of arrests, compared to under one per cent for other large forces.

The report from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director also points out that some people subjected to a strip search may suffer psychological harm, especially for vulnerable residents and those with past trauma.

At the time of the pilot project, a spokesperson for the force said full-body scans could eventually replace some of the 20,000 strip searches local officers conduct each year — an average of 55 per day.

"The Toronto Police Service continue having this obsession with searching where the sun don't shine — without legal authority," said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The privacy advocate believes full-body scanners are just a "different kind of privacy invasion."

"Instead of being told to disrobe, you're just being disrobed electronically," added Bryant, who believes the force should curb its use of the procedure entirely.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, believes full-body scanners are just a 'different kind of privacy invasion.' (Chris Glover/CBC)

These kinds of concerns have been part of the process, with Toronto police exploring the use of body scanners for several years now through consultations with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the attorney general's office.

Two police watchdogs, the Special Investigations Unit and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, were also consulted. 

The public tender documents note that the Toronto police expect the first full-body scanner from the successful bidder to be installed by March 31, 2020.

The deadline for proposals is Nov. 5, with the force aiming to finalize the agreement by the end of the month.

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

With files from Nicole Brockbank, Lorenda Reddekopp

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