Toronto police shut down most freedom of information requests for months during pandemic

Ontario's office of the privacy commissioner says it "strongly discourages" institutions from shutting down freedom of information requests, after the Toronto Police Service stopped accepting most FOI inquiries during the pandemic.

Institutions must still respond to FOI requests, privacy commissioner says

For months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto police officials were not accepting new freedom of information requests. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

For three months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto Police Service stopped accepting most Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Now, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (OIPCO) has gotten involved, and says it "strongly discourages" any public institutions suspending or not accepting access to information requests during the pandemic.

"Institutions are still obligated to respond to requests for information under Ontario's access laws — even during a pandemic when the public continues to expect government accountability and transparency, perhaps now more than ever," the OIPCO said in a statement.

Between March 1 and June 4, anyone emailing requests to Toronto police's access and privacy division received a response saying the force was not able to accept any new FOI requests, but was continuing to work on those it had already received.

Toronto police declined an interview request on the issue, but in an email, Connie Osborne, acting manager of media relations, said police made the decision based on guidance from public health and government agencies.

"This included closing police facilities to the public and where possible, members work from home," she said.

"We continued to process previously received requests and any requests that did require immediate attention."

Pandemic 'no longer an excuse,' expert says

The OIPCO reached out to Toronto police about the issue in June, and since then, the service has changed a notice on its website to encourage mail-in applications, while also warning of potential delays.

Teresa Scassa, the Canada research chair in information law and policy and a professor at The University of Ottawa, told CBC News that delays would likely have been inevitable at the outset of the pandemic as people adjusted to working from home — but added that's no longer an excuse.

"We've had enough time to adjust since the start of the pandemic. People have been working at home for a long time now, [and] have been figuring out ways to offer services to the public with the changes in the workplace," she said.

"We're also in Ontario entering into Stage 3 where you can go to a bar, so surely you can go into the office to look through some files if you need to."

Scassa said timely information requests are crucial in times of crisis like this because governments and officials are given more latitude to move quickly and make decisions in ways they ordinarily wouldn't.

 "And because of that, it's very important to have transparency, so we can be assured that in this more free-wheeling, more fast-moving environment, there aren't any abuses of power or abuses of authority or other problems emerging," she said.

Toronto police's on-time response rate for FOI requests was just over 61 per cent in 2019, with 27 per cent of requests completed within 90 days.

The service says it still has around 90 pending requests, with the oldest from 2017.

Toronto police receive more FOI requests than any other agency in the province, according to OIPCO data. The service received 5,234 requests in 2019, compared to 2,789 for the City of Toronto.

With files from Katherine Brulotte