The Sault Ste. Marie police department is refusing to disclose basic statistics about how many officers have been internally disciplined over the past five years — but a university researcher originally from the Sault is fighting to have that information released to the public.
Academic researcher and teacher Dax D’Orazio initially filed a request for statistics under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act on May 6, 2021. In his request, D’Orazio asked the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service (SSMPS) for “the monthly number of internal disciplinary measures applied to SSMPS members between January 2015 and April 2021.”
His request was subsequently denied by the force, prompting D’Orazio to appeal the police service’s decision with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) in June of last year. The appeal has since entered the inquiry stage.
“The service believes the Act does not apply to records collected, prepared or used for employment related matters and providing the ‘internal disciplinary measures applied to SSMPS members' would be disregarding these sections of the act,” reads an excerpt of the representations the police service provided to the Commissioner in December 2021. “Furthermore, the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service as an employer has an inherent interest in internal discipline and in the results thereof.
“Additionally, the institution has a legal interest in the maintenance of its internal administrative records, which may be improperly used if disseminated. There is no ‘greater good’ to be accomplished by releasing this information.”
Sault police included a number of arguments to IPC as to why information about disciplinary measures shouldn’t be made available to D’Orazio, who has authored articles on public accountability and transparency in the past.
SSMPS maintained the requested records contain “highly sensitive information” that could cause “unfair damage to reputation” for some of its members.
“A release of that record would release personal information about a member and this information is highly sensitive, private, and disclosure of that information could cause further personal distress,” SSMPS wrote in its representation to IPC.
The police service goes on to state that it regularly publishes crime statistics, “which arguably are of greater benefit, and judging by the requests for our annual report and hits on the institution’s website, are of more interest to the public.”
It also argued that no local media outlet has requested that kind of information in the past.
“While the appellant may have published articles for the local media and appears to be working on a project about police accountability in this city, the institution has not received similar requests from other media regarding internal disciplinary measures applied to SSMPS members,” SSMPS wrote.
SSMPS declined comment when reached by SooToday Wednesday.
D’Orazio, who is currently teaching and conducting research at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., told SooToday that information obtained from SSMPS would be used for an investigative series that’s currently in the works regarding police accountability and transparency in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Over the last year or so, I’ve been busily collecting various types of data, and this data related to internal disciplinary measures statistics is what I believe to be a really important piece of data for doing the research,” said D’Orazio. “I was somewhat surprised by the response, and so was quite motivated to file an appeal and challenge officially at the IPC, and I’m hoping that the arguments that I’ve made are persuasive enough that the IPC will rule in my favour, and then hopefully compel the SSMPS to release those statistics.”
D’Orazio is countering the police service’s claim to the IPC that the information requested on internal discipline could potentially identify its members.
“The important point to bear in mind is that I didn’t request any information related to individual officers, or even what the substance of the alleged misconduct might be, so it’s completely devoid of personal information,” said D’Orazio, adding that he only asked for the number of disciplinary actions levied, which he described as a “basic and minimally intrusive statistic that ought to be released, even if that alleged misconduct is not the result of an official public complaint.”
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director, a provincial third-party civilian oversight agency, has a legislative mandate to potentially investigate a complaint by a member of the public.
But D’Orazio said there’s a more discreet process for discipline by police services that’s being shielded from the public in which police service members are being internally disciplined for “very serious and concerning instances of misconduct, including things like drunk driving, assaults, things related to violence.”
“And it’s only as a result of really intrepid journalists and researchers that have unearthed some of these instances in which police officers are informally disciplined for offences and misconduct that ought to arouse public scrutiny and transparency and accountability,” he added.
The researcher pointed to Breaking Badge, an investigative series produced by the Toronto Star in 2015, which used information on internal disciplinary measures released by police in Peel, Halton and the Ontario Provincial Police. The information showed that internal disciplinary measures were sometimes used in cases of serious misconduct and even criminal behaviour.
“Sault Ste. Marie is not an island,” said D’Orazio. “There have been other police services across Ontario that have released precisely this data without any issues, and so what this request would do, if found in my favour at the IPC, would formalize what is already the status quo elsewhere.”
D’Orazio is hopeful the Information and Privacy Commissioner will reach a decision as early as this summer.