The Toronto Police Service conducts “far too many strip searches,” “easily” accounting for the vast majority of the thousands of such searches estimated to be done in Ontario each year, concludes Ontario’s police complaints director in a new report.
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) released the results Thursday of a three-year systemic review of the police practice of strip searching, a province-wide examination that watchdog director Gerry McNeilly launched in 2016 after receiving streams of individual complaints about the searches.
Its damning conclusion: that nearly two decades after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the constitutionality of strip searches — a ruling that defined the searches as inherently humiliating and degrading, and established when and how they can lawfully be done — “police compliance is still a serious issue.”
“Despite this decision on the legality of strip searches, courts in Ontario continue to regularly find that police officers unlawfully or unreasonably conduct strip searches, sometimes resulting in the exclusion of evidence or the stay of charges,” McNeilly writes in his report, called “Breaking the Golden Rule,” named for the Supreme Court case R v. Golden.
“Over the years, there has been a continuous stream of reported cases involving unconstitutional strip searches. Put simply, the issue has not abated despite the passage of 18 years since the Golden decision.”
As part of the review, McNeilly’s team conducted an analysis of the criminal decisions in Ontario since the Golden decision where there was a court finding that either police, or the Canada Border Services Agency, conducted a strip search that was found to be in violation of the defendant’s charter rights.
They found 89 such cases between 2002 and 2018, 40 involving Toronto police.
In 74 of the cases — 83 per cent — the defendant’s rights were violated “based on the absence of, or inadequacy of, grounds justifying a strip search,” the report finds.
“This represents an alarming number of cases. It is made worse by the fact that in 18 cases, trial judges specifically commented on how the police treated strip searching as a matter of routine,” the report states.
McNeilly’s report makes 50 recommendations, first among them that every Ontario police service in Ontario “ensure that they are made aware of judicial findings of charter violations in strip search cases, and proactively take measures to address the issues raised when appropriate.”
“Such measures may involve anything from counselling, guidance, added supervision or training to prevent future violations to disciplinary proceedings in more egregious cases,” McNeilly writes.
Another central finding of the report came after his office requested strip search data from Ontario’s 53 police services: many don’t keep data, let alone reliable and detailed information, including about total arrests, the number of strip searches conducted, and what was found.
“The majority of services indicated that they did not keep strip search statistics at all. Nor did they have a process to collect such statistics since most of the information sought was only to be found, if at all, in officers’ notes. As a result, information could not be extracted in a timely or accurate manner,” the report states.
Sixty-two per cent of police services could provide some statistics about what, if any, strip searches were done during the requested time period — 2014 to 2017 — “although 17 per cent of those police services provided such information based on memory alone,” the report states. The remaining 38 per cent of police services did not provide any such data.
Additionally, because Ontario police services have generally failed to keep race-related statistics, oversight agencies such as the OIPRD cannot “conduct evidence-based (rather than speculative) evaluations of the role that race plays in whether and how strip searches are conducted,” McNeilly writes.
“This type of evaluation is long overdue,” the report states.
The report recommends that all police services in Ontario “ensure that they keep accurate statistics of the number of persons they arrest or detain, the number of persons strip searched … and the justifications provided for such strip searches.”
“The statistics should also identify, among other things, the race of the person subjected to such a strip search,” the report states, adding the statistics should be made available to the public in an annual report.
More to come.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis