Secrecy urged around non-conviction records
TORONTO - People who have had contact with police in Ontario that did not end in a conviction should no longer fear release of the potentially sensitive information during standard record checks under updated guidelines released Wednesday.
Civil liberties, mental-health and other advocacy groups praised the updated approach urged by the Ontario Association of Police Chiefs as a significant step toward protecting innocent people from the harm such disclosure can cause, but said legislation is needed to force compliance.
"We know that thousands of people are being impacted by the disclosure of non-conviction records, and we know that people are being discriminated against when employers and volunteer agencies receive these types of records on police checks," said Abby Deshman, program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"These guidelines ... will provide a great level of protection to many people across Ontario if implemented."
The revised guidelines call on police to no longer disclose apprehensions under mental-health laws or related information — such as suicide attempts — under any circumstances. In addition, police contacts with members of the public that do not lead to criminal convictions will no longer be routinely disclosed.
An exceptional disclosure mechanism applies to those working or volunteering with children or others considered to be vulnerable. For example, non-conviction records could be disclosed in cases where someone has faced multiple accusations of fraud against the elderly or sexual abuse of children, under the new guidelines.
"I think it's going to be a handful of times," said Paul Cormier, co-chairman of the association's law enforcement and records managers network.
"We're trying to make sure police agencies understand that this is exceptional."
The changes reflect years of concern by human-rights, privacy, prisoner and mental-health advocates.
The civil liberties association said it had heard from more than 100 people over the past year who had phoned 911 for help with mental-health crises and then lost their jobs, were forced out of school or barred from volunteering when police disclosed that information as a result of record checks.
Deshman called it "huge" that the vast majority of people with non-conviction records should no longer have to worry about their police-contact information being disclosed.
However, a major concern is that it is up to individual police forces to decide on implementing the guidelines. Some may simply refuse to do so.
As a result, the police chiefs association and others are calling on the province to legislate the rules around record checks and disclosure.
Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi welcomed the guidelines but was non-commital about any legislation.
"We will continue to work with our partners to review the issue of police background checks and are committed to exploring all avenues to find the right balance in this area," Naqvi said in a statement.
This is the third incarnation of the guidelines the police chiefs began working on in 2007. Every police service in the province was given an opportunity to provide input, Cormier said.
The Toronto Police Service — which has come under criticism for releasing sensitive information unrelated to criminal convictions — said it was studying the document and had no immediate comment.
Paula Osmok, executive director with the John Howard Society of Ontario — a prisoner advocacy group — welcomed the changes.
Adoption of the guidelines will better protect people against disclosure of non-conviction police records and the "discrimination and stigmatization that often results from their release," Osmok said in a statement.