Ontario police watchdog finds unnecessary, illegal strip searches commonplace

One of Ontario's police watchdogs says unnecessary and illegal strip searches have become commonplace. Global News

TORONTO – Strip searches of suspects have become commonplace and are all too often unnecessary and even illegal despite sharp criticism of the practice going back almost two decades, one of Ontario’s police watchdogs reported on Thursday.

In a special analysis of the issue, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director says strip-search procedures across the province are inconsistent, poorly documented and often show a misunderstanding of the law.

Director Gerry McNeilly calls the situation “intolerable” in light of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2001 that established the legal parameters for the intrusive searches. Violations have led to the exclusion of evidence and even the dismissal of charges, he notes.

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“It is extremely concerning … police continue to conduct strip searches in violation of the law,” McNeilly said in a statement. “This comes at a high cost to those directly affected by humiliating and intrusive searches and to the justice system, especially where unlawful searches result in the exclusion of evidence or the staying of charges.”

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In many cases, McNeilly says the definition of what constitutes a strip search is poorly understood and procedures around the practice vary widely.

What’s clear, his report states, is that the searches should never be done routinely but McNeilly says it’s not helpful to try to come up with a hard and fast ratio for how many people arrested should be strip searched.

In all, police in Ontario carry out 22,000 strip searches a year, the report states.

However, a key problem is the woeful state of data collection around the practice, making it difficult to properly compare differences among police services. One key problem identified is the dearth of race-related information.

The report points out that some people subjected to a strip search may suffer psychological harm, especially for individuals traumatized in the past or who are otherwise vulnerable. Those involved in the justice system often don’t understand the impact.

Toronto police were found to be by far the most aggressive strip searchers – at close to 40 per cent of arrests compared to under one per cent for other large forces, the report said. The service said it has been addressing the “challenges and sensitivities” associated with the procedure in recent few years and is testing body scanners as an alternative.

“It is important to note that the issue of strip searches is more complex than simply looking at the numbers,” the force said in a statement Thursday. “When searches are conducted appropriately, they can be a necessary safety requirement resulting in the seizure of weapons and drugs.”

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The report, which urges authorities to take a hard look at the practice, makes 50 recommendations and includes a template for proper procedures.

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Among the recommendations:

– Ensure all police services understand the law around strip searches and the ramifications of violations.

– Police services must keep solid and consistent statistics, including on race, related to such searches.

– Enhance training for searches and what items might be found.

– Clearly define what constitutes a strip search in line with the Supreme Court ruling on the topic.

– Procedures for the practice must be clear.

– Searches should normally be authorized in advance and carried out by an officer of the same gender.

“Too often, police officers do not even follow existing procedures,” McNeilly says in his report. “A number of officers professed ignorance of existing procedures or misunderstood what their obligations were.”

The report says strip searches, when necessary, should be carried out in a private area and are illegal if “carried out abusively or for the purpose of humiliating of punishing the arrested person.”

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Police should also consider audio recording the searches and videotaping the lead-up, the report says.

“Eighteen years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that strip searches are inherently humiliating and degrading,” McNeilly concludes in his special report. “It gave careful direction on how and when such searches can lawfully be conducted (but) police regularly conduct strip searches in violation of the law.”

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