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Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Police sharing of mental health information is a nightmare Add to ...

Two years ago, Ellen Richardson made what she calls a “half-hearted” attempt at suicide while suffering from depression. A 911 call was placed, police duly arrived on the scene and, thankfully, Ms. Richardson survived. A year later, she was at Toronto’s Pearson airport, about to depart on her “dream vacation” – a cruise – but she had to fly to the U.S. first. Ms. Richardson never made it. After checking in for her flight, she was stopped by a U.S. customs agent, grilled about the suicide attempt and her mental health, fingerprinted, photographed and barred from boarding the plane.

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Exactly how her suicide attempt – a private medical matter – popped up on the computer screen of a U.S. border guard was a mystery to Ms. Richardson, but it was no accident. An investigation by Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, found that it was the routine result of a cascade of bad policy that begins with Toronto police and runs right up to the RCMP.

Ms. Richardson committed no crime. Her suicide attempt caused no harm to anyone except herself, and she should have had no reason to fear being barred from the U.S. But it turns out Ms. Richardson’s ordeal is not an isolated case. Ms. Cavoukian’s investigation uncovered other similar incidents, including a Canadian lawyer who called 911 in 2012, after accidentally overdosing on a medication. The police responded to the call – and as a result, he was pulled aside for questioning the next time he tried to go shopping in Buffalo.

Why does U.S. Homeland Security know so much about the mental health records of so many Canadians? The problem has to do with a police database, the information that is being put into it, and who it is being shared with.

The Toronto Police Service requires all of its officers to automatically record all incidents of attempted suicide. The information is uploaded to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), a national law-enforcement and public-safety database maintained by the RCMP. The RCMP has an agreement to share CPIC information with the FBI, which in turn provides access to U.S. Homeland Security. If a Toronto resident calls 911 for even a suspected case of self-harm, and the police show up, U.S. customs agents will know about it. Ms. Richardson and others were denied entry under a clause of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows border officials to turn back anyone with a “mental disorder” that poses or could pose a threat to themselves or anyone else.

Ms. Richardson might have made her cruise if the Toronto police officer who responded to her 911 call had been allowed to use her judgment to decide whether to upload her suicide attempt to CPIC. Other police forces – the Ontario Provincial Police, Hamilton, Waterloo Region and Ottawa – do exactly that. The circumstances surrounding an attempt at suicide vary from case to case. It follows that a police officer’s decision on how to follow up on each incident should as well.

Ms. Cavoukian recommends that the Toronto Police Service stop automatically uploading information on all suspected suicides, and instead follow the more flexible rules used by many other Canadian police forces. Officers should have greater discretion not to put suicide information into the database. Suicide attempts that include the threat of violence toward others, or involve a person with a history of violence, or that take place while in police custody, would go into CPIC. Others would not.

Many cases of attempted suicide are simply the sad consequence of mental illness, and involve nobody other than the individual attempting suicide. They may not even be suicide attempts at all – as in the case of the lawyer who accidentally took too many pills and wisely called an emergency line for help. These details should be treated as sensitive personal information, yet CPIC makes them instantly accessible to every Canadian police force and many in the U.S., including U.S. border agents.

The database doesn’t operate in nuance. It only deals in red flags. It’s a vast bucket containing an array of information – from criminal activity to missing-persons alerts to arrest warrants to some aspects of mental-health history. In Ms. Richardson’s case, it didn’t matter that her psychiatrist had given medical clearance for the trip. The database had a black mark against her name. In the eyes of Homeland Security, that placed her in the same category as a criminal.

CPIC’s over-eager sharing of sensitive medical information with U.S. authorities shows a stunning ignorance of the potential consequences for ordinary, law-abiding Canadians. The Mental Health Commission of Canada sees “no good reason” to enter most mental health and suicide information into the national police database, or to share it among North American police services. “The marginal potential benefit,” says the commission, “is far outweighed by the possible detrimental effects.” Exactly right.

Under the current policy, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where someone attempting suicide hesitates to call 911, fearing their name could be added to the CPIC blacklist. It’s a nightmare scenario. And it’s hardly a stretch.

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