Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Kirk Makin

p. A14.

Women still face body-cavity searches, groups say

Official story from Toronto not borne out by those who seek help from shelters, rape-crisis centres

Toronto's police chief and the chairman of the Toronto Police Services Board are being kept in the dark if they think officers no longer conduct body-cavity searches, spokeswomen for several women's shelters and rape-crisis centres said yesterday.

They told the board that traumatized women regularly report having been subjected to strip-searches involving physical contact by an officer.

"There is a whole different story going on than the official story when it comes to strip-searches," said Andrea Ritchie, a board member at Nellie's Shelter for Women.

"Women are calling our lines and coming into our shelters and they have been body-cavity searched," Ms Ritchie said. "I don't know who is doing it, but it is going on. I don't know what sources you have got, but the Assaulted Women's Helpline has had calls from women in the last few month who had [body-cavity searches]."

Ms. Ritchie's comments followed statements by Chief David Boothby and board chairman Norm Gardner that they believe visual strip-searches have long since replaced any more intrusive form of strip-searches.

Anne-Marie Aikins, another spokeswomen, also cautioned the board yesterday not to minimize the horror of a visual strip-search simply because it seems the least intrusive alternative. Even in routine, non-contact searches, she said, women are told to spread their legs and buttocks so officers can inspect them.

"Women are extremely traumatized by it, especially if they have any history of sexual assault," she said.

The strip-search issue burst into the open last month with almost a dozen accounts in The Globe and Mail that involved citizens who were subject to the degrading routine in connection with minor crimes.

The board has said it will create a new strip-search policy for police at its February meeting. Several deputations gave opinions yesterday on how the policy should read.

Alan Borovoy, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, urged the board not to forget the cases that brought the issue to light. He said the board should demand a report on each case revealed in the media.

"It may well be that some of them, under existing law, were illegal," Mr. Borovoy said. "I think it is very important that the public see that you are not ignoring those allegations already made in the public."

Ms. Aikins and Ms. Ritchie told the meeting that any police strip-search of a woman is automatically a sexual assault. Not only does it amount to a grave personal violation, they said, but it constitutes an actual sexual assault under the Criminal Code of Canada.

"Strip-searches and body-cavity searches involve touching women's breasts, vaginas and anuses," Ms. Ritchie said. "Case law has shown that aggressive acts that violate the sexual integrity of a person are a sexual assault on that basis alone."

Ms. Ritchie said 80 per cent of the women who come to her shelter and who have had previous contact with the criminal-justice system report having been strip-searched.

"By far, the experience of women is that they are touched when they are strip-searched," she said.

Ms. Ritchie told of a young prostitute who had run away from home when she was 16 because her father had tried to have sex with her. She was so traumatized after being picked up by two police officers that she wet her pants.

She said they threatened to punch her if she didn't submit to a strip-search, and then laughed at her wet underwear.

However, Chief Boothby defended thorough searches to the board. "In my 35 years of policing, I have seen horror stories when people were not searched thoroughly enough," he said.

The only specific story he recounted involved a murder suspect in Florida who was able to undo his handcuffs with a concealed key and then shot three officers to death.

Chief Boothby said he would like the board to base its new policy on requiring officers to give a valid reason for conducting a strip-search. Searches depend entirely on the context, he said.

"I have charged members of the National Hockey League in assaults," he said. "I certainly didn't strip them. You have to consider the background, the type of offence and the proximity of the offence. It depends on the circumstances."

Toronto Police clippings... [Fiona Stewart]

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

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