February 4 - 10, 1999. Vol. 18, No. 23

John Sewell

p. 22.

Stripped to the truth

The evidence suggests the police use searches to humiliate, not to investigate

Councillor Judy Sgro has retained her position as vice-chair of the police services board. Last week, that well-connected Tory Jeff Lyons gracelessly backed away from confrontation with Sgro by deciding no to run for the position.

But the board is still running on empty. The vice-chair job has no significant power, but it was widely interpreted that by electing Lyons the board would be punishing Sgro, who has been the only board member to question police policies or to dissent from common police wisdom.

Problems continue to mount, and police force behaviour drifts further and further from what the people of Toronto expect. Take the issue of strip searches.

Lawyer searched

It's now three months since a British lawyer was dragged off Dundas West and strip-searched -- as in the police searching the man's body cavities -- for no good reason. Since then, all sorts of other cases of intimidating strip searches of innocent people have come to light.

The police services board has been concerned enough to say the police needs to be reviewed, but it has refused to adopt Sgro's motion that in the interim such searches should be largely curtailed. Finally, last week, five members of the board (Lyons chaired the group) held a public hearing on the matter.

"This is a very serious personal indignity," opines Lyons as he opens the hearing. "It's so fundamental that we must come up with a policy that's more than fair to the public."

Three individuals tell the meeting what it's like being strip-searched. One is a young woman who, after twice asking to be allowed to call a lawyer, requested that at least the door be closed so the male officers outside the room wouldn't see her naked. Her request was refused. "It stays open for security," she was told.

The woman was held overnight in a cell. Charges were withdrawn by the Crown because there was no substance to them.

It's a chilling tale, and the board members look suitably horrified. Lyons asks if she has filed a complaint with the police.

"I've been told it's hopeless to pursue a complaints against police," says the woman, who remains composed throughout the telling.

The next case involves a man who admits to several brushes with the law, and accordingly attracts little sympathy. He's followed by another woman -- a lawyer, it turns out -- who made the mistake of calling 911 and ended up being taken to a police station and strip-searched.

"If you want to know who is being strip-searched," she tells the panel, "it's people who look like me." She is black.

Private session

The panel later adjourns into private sessions, where it hears from people who aren't willing to tell their stories in public. (Apparently, three more examples of the abuse of police search powers surfaced.)

Sgro says the experience was an eyeopener for other board members, who hadn't given much credence to her concerns about strip searches.

Police chief David Boothby has prepared a new draft policy, which requires that everyone who's put in a cell shall first be subjected to a "complete search." They must take off every shred of clothing and be searched. But searching cavities can only be done by a "medical practitioner."

This proposal clearly restricts cavity searches while vastly expanding naked searches by mandating that they should occur with virtually every arrest.

Further, the new policy states that records will be kept of these searches and that they must be approved by the officer in charge, though the requirement that complete searches must be undertaken before anyone is put in a cell makes this section redundant. And why keep records of something that is mandatory?

The board has been given no data about current police practice. Are strip searches and cavity searches done all the time? Half of the time? The board doesn't know.

"They have no figures," says Sgro. "When I raised it last fall, they said it wasn't a big issue. It was isolated, just a few people. They said they don't document it. It just blew my mind."

What's worse, the police have no record of what strip searches have revealed, other than naked bodies. There is no data on how frequently strip searches have produced evidence related to criminal activity. Does evidence emerge once every 1,000 searches? Does it ever emerge?

Superintendent Aiden Maher of 52 division -- which seems to face more than its share of complaints -- confirms in an interview that there are no records on the percentage of searches that are strip searches or on how often things are found. He does say police look for knives, razor blades, drugs and counterfeit money.

Before a court decision last fall that contested indiscriminate body searches, Maher says, everyone was subject to a full strip search.

Officers confused

Now that police have been restrained by the court decision, he's not even willing to hazard a guess about answers to these questions.

"Officers are confused," Maher says. "When is a prisoner not a prisoner? If federal and provincial officials (at prison and jails) do strip searches on their prisoners, are our prisoners treated differently? Who makes the final decision for something like this that is Canada -wide?

"What's the civil responsibility of police (officers) who put a person in custody without a full search and there's a suicide? Is the responsibility then on police?"

Maher says he has recently instructed his officers only to do strip searches that are "incidental to an arrest." For instance, if there is a robbery with a knife and the knife can't be found, then do a strip search.

If there is no data -- not even anecdotal evidence that the police are willing to cite -- about the effectiveness of the current strip search policy, one is forced to conclude that perhaps the intention is to intimidate members of the public.

If that's the case, the policy is extraordinarily successful. Everyone seems to be afraid to complain about strip searches. But is that something a police department should be proud of?

A more reasonable policy might be to prevent the police from engaging in "complete searches" altogether except in extraordinary circumstances. Sgro says that her first suggestion last fall -- that strip searches should not be done unless certain conditions have been met, such as a reasonable belief, given the criminal activity alleged, that evidence has been concealed in such a way that having the suspect remove all clothing is the only option available.

The police services board hasn't been willing to admit there is a problem.

One senses a shift might have occurred as the evidence of intimidation has mounted. But who knows what will happen as the board leisurely considers the alternatives and prepares to report on the chief's draft policy by mid-March. Perhaps another well-publicized hearing, and new examples of how citizens are treated, will push the board into acting as though it cared about police policy.

Toronto Police clippings... [Fiona Stewart]

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

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