Thursday, November 12, 1998

Kirk Makin

p. A1.

Watchdog presses for strip-search reforms

Police board member suggests officers will be held accountable

The days of almost indiscriminate strip-searches by Toronto police officers are about to end, the vice-chairman of the Toronto Police Services Board said yesterday. "I think I can speak for all the board in saying we were quite surprised at the insufficient policy on it," vice-chairman Judy Sgro said.

"All of us were quite surprised to find out that it is up to the discretion of the officer. As a board, we felt very strongly it raised issues that made us uncomfortable."

Ms. Sgro, a Toronto councillor, said that recent conversations at the board suggest it is likely to design a new strip-search policy that makes officers accountable. She said such a policy would likely include a requirement that any officer who strip-searches a suspect submit a report explaining why it was necessary.

Police will probably also be required to keep statistics on how often strip-searches are done, Ms. Sgro said. They now have none.

Ms. Sgro said she was appalled to read accounts in The Globe and Mail over the past 10 days describing a dozen incidents, most of them in Toronto, in which people kept in custody for brief periods were subjected to strip-searches.

Ms. Sgro said that she made informal inquiries of her own through police channels and was shocked to learn that at least one downtown division has a standard policy of strip-searching all people arrested, regardless of their alleged offence.

"I think it is just part of the way police do business in some divisions," she said. "There are divisions that do it every time to every person, and there are divisions that only do it when they are dealing with someone who is a known criminal."

Policies in Toronto and most other parts of Canada allow officers to conduct a strip-search if they feel a person may be concealing drugs, weapons or other evidence.

Police board 'uncomfortable' over strip-searches

Ms. Sgro said some searches are understandable, but others are highly dubious. "They shouldn't be based on whether someone makes you angry, so you decide to strip-search them," she said.

Two other members of the Toronto Police Services Board were unable to comment on the issue yesterday. Board member Jeff Lyons said it would be premature to comment. Sylvia Hudson did not return a phone call.

In another development yesterday, James Dubro, a member of a community policing liaison committee for 52 Division of the Toronto police, said he recently learned from a senior Metro Toronto officer that every strip-search conducted at 52 Division is routinely videotaped.

"This is a very sensitive subject," Mr. Dubro said in an interview. "I don't know where these videotapes go. I don't know the control of them, but I suppose it would be very tight."

Mr. Dubro said police strongly defend their right to conduct strip-searches, stressing the need to look for weapons to ensure both their own safety and that of suicidal detainees.

"They are going to be reluctant to give up this power," he said. However, Mr. Dubro said there are less intrusive ways to check for weapons.

He also said it difficult to justify searching a person with no criminal background and who is being held only for a few hours on a minor charge.

The issue came up last spring after several people arrested while protesting outside Queen's Park were subjected to strip-searches.

Ms. Sgro said the entire police services board expressed grave concern at the time and asked Toronto Police Services Chief David Boothby to prepare a report detailing the extent of the practice. She said the report is overdue, but that Chief Boothby has agreed to provide it to the board's December meeting.

'There are divisions that do it every time to every person, and there are divisions that only do it when they are dealing with someone who is a known criminal.'

Ten days ago, the issue erupted again when John Hanson, a lawyer from England, was strip-searched at 52 Division after being erroneously identified as the perpetrator of a minor assault.

Ms. Sgro said she intends to ask the police to, prepare a report on Mr. Hanson's arrest and on each of the other incidents that have appeared in the press since then. All of those strip-searched had been arrested for minor offences and released almost immediately.

A Toronto criminal lawyer said yesterday that some clients are beginning to express apprehension about turning themselves in at police stations over minor matters.

Robert Rotenburg said one client asked him yesterday to write a letter to the police asking whether they intended to strip-search her if she agreed to turn herself in on an outstanding welfare fraud charge.

"We are talking about cases where I have been negotiating with the police for days or weeks over whether the client would come in," Mr. Rotenburg said.

Toronto Police clippings... [Fiona Stewart]

Created: February 14, 1999
Last modified: February 14, 1999

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