Privacy, ethics experts raise concerns with Manitoba Police Commission downtown safety report

Click to play video: 'Criminal justice expert discusses shortcomings of Winnipeg downtown safety report' Criminal justice expert discusses shortcomings of Winnipeg downtown safety report
Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, says the newly-released downtown safety strategy doesn't approach the root causes of homelessness and crime – Dec 4, 2019

The Manitoba Police Commission’s downtown safety report, released Tuesday and intended to tackle increased crime in the city centre, has raised alarm bells among some criminal justice, privacy and ethics experts.

The report, commissioned by the province earlier in the fall, recommends cracking down on panhandling, enhancing video surveillance capabilities and increasing foot patrols, among other measures.

One recommendation — forcing chronic offenders into addiction treatment if they don’t seek it willingly — jumped out for University of Winnipeg associate criminal justice professor Kevin Walby.

READ MORE: Enhanced camera surveillance, stiffer panhandling fines floated in safety report

“I don’t know if it would be ethical to remove someone from a space and force them to undergo some kind of treatment; I don’t think it would work because we know that forced treatment doesn’t work, but also you have to have broader community social development to support people, and that’s not a part of this plan,” Walby said in an interview.

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The report doesn’t suggest implementing such a measure immediately.

“If individuals are truly not wanting or willing to explore treatment and instead choose to do short periods of incarceration, it would be interesting to explore the possibility of eliminating that choice for them,” the report states in part.

“I don’t know if it would be legal, because there is language in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms around conditions of detention that I think a public interest lawyer could say, ‘Well you can’t just forcibly detain anyone for any kind of a reason,’” Walby said.

The report included input from more than two dozen business and social service groups.

Walby circled one in particular for pointed criticism — True North Sports and Entertainment.

“There are probably other ways of addressing addictions and homelessness that don’t involve True North and other real estate property developers putting their hands into this pie, and there are probably other ways of addressing addictions issues like public health harm reduction strategies that are more community-based than what’s being advocated in this report,” he said.

Walby also took issue with increasing foot patrols in the area.

READ MORE: New pilot project partners City of Winnipeg, True North, Downtown BIZ to reduce crime

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“With improved or enhanced foot patrols, what we’re going to have is just more kind of sweeping of people away from downtown corners and alleys and the displacing of people from the community, and it’s going to lead to a situation where — where are they going to go?”

Enhanced surveillance measures could extend to facial recognition technology, police commission chair David Asper told reporters Tuesday.

Privacy lawyer Andrew Buck doesn’t have an issue with increased surveillance as a general principle, but believes it needs to be conducted properly.

“It’s important to just recognize that there really should be what’s called a ‘privacy impact assessment’, so that would be a document where the objectives of the project are looked at, the efficacy of the program in terms of actually achieving those objectives is looked at, whether or not it would be possible to achieve this with a less privacy-invasive way,” the Pitblado Law partner said in an interview.

“Again, it’s not that we can’t do it, but there’s certain things we need to be mindful of,” Buck said of the use of facial recognition technology.

“One of the things that relates to big data generally, and the idea that when you’ve got machine-reading processes doing things, you have to make sure the algorithms are set up in a manner that’s non-discriminatory in nature.”

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Neil McArthur, the director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, has more pressing concerns about facial recognition technology.

The Manitoba Police Commission “acknowledge this is all very preliminary, but the technology is coming, soon, and I don’t think people are really paying attention to the ways in which it’s being explored by various public and private entities,” McArthur wrote in an email.

“Our current privacy laws were written at a time when people’s images could not be recognized and archived, and where massive amounts of visual data weren’t being systematically collected.”

“I think what you’re going to see happening is that both businesses and government are going to start expanding their video surveillance slowly and quietly over the next while, knowing that they can then easily implement facial recognition software as it becomes available,” the ethics expert wrote.

The commission’s report is non-binding, not mandated.

with files from the Canadian Press

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