Ontario’s privacy watchdog issued a special report Monday demanding police stop sharing information about suicide attempts with U.S. officials, who used the mental-health data to block at least four Canadians from entering the United States.
“I found it so unnerving to think about the humiliation and embarrassment that an individual would feel upon arriving at the airport and being denied entry into the United States because they learned from a U.S. border crossing official that they had access to their highly sensitive personal information about a past suicide attempt,” Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said. “Can you imagine?”
There is no legal requirement that suicide attempts be entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database, which is shared with American officials through a co-operation agreement between the RCMP and the FBI, Cavoukian said.
“There is nowhere that we found where there’s any mandatory obligation on the part of CPIC to say you have to disclose this information,” Cavoukian told reporters. “That’s nonsense. It doesn’t exist.”
The OPP and police services in Hamilton, Waterloo and Ottawa show some discretion when it comes to uploading suicides into CPIC, Cavoukian said, but not the only other force her office contacted, the Toronto Police Service.
“This is entirely at the discretion of the particular police service involved and four out of the five that we looked into, all with the exception of the Toronto Police Service, all exercise discretion,” she said.
However, Toronto police said they do show discretion about which cases are loaded into CPIC, but they want officers to have access to as much information as possible about someone when they are responding to a call.
“She does make a rather crucial mistake when she says that we don’t use discretion with the information and it automatically gets posted to CPIC, and that’s just wrong,” said Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash.
“When we respond to a call we believe that an officer should have all of the information they require to be able to protect the person whom we’re being called to deal with, but also anyone else who may be involved and the police officers themselves.”
Cavoukian issued a release later Monday saying Pugash’s statements to The Canadian Press “directly contradicts” what the Toronto Police Service told her office.
“I would be delighted to learn that the TPS is now willing to exercise some discretion,” she said. “I again call upon the TPS to exercise discretion, in accordance with my recommendations.”
Cavoukian’s concerns about who has access to CPIC should be taken up with the Mounties, Pugash added.
“That may very well be a serious issue, but that’s an issue that she has to take up with the RCMP because they administer CPIC,” he said. “Any decisions as to who else has access is an issue for them, not for the Toronto police.”
The privacy commissioner said mental-health experts told her that a past suicide attempt is not a predictor of future behaviour, and she is worried that people will not seek help if they know their mental health issues could keep them from travelling to the U.S. and be disclosed by a border guard.
“Could you imagine the fear and the trepidation about crossing the border with any of your colleagues,” she asked. “People would avoid it at all costs because of the untenable possibility that they would be denied entry into the United States.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association said Cavoukian’s report highlights “significant grey areas” in terms of police reporting on suicides, and called for more study about the disclosure of police records.
“Mental health police records are not criminal records and should not be treated as such,” said the association’s Ontario chief executive officer, Camile Quenneville. “Standardizing the protocol for disclosure would be welcome.”
Cavoukian concluded “the indiscriminate disclosure of all personal information relating to suicide attempts or threats is not in compliance” with Ontario’s Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or its provincial equivalent.