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The Globe and Mail

B.C. reveals too much in police background checks: privacy czar

Elizabeth Denham, speaks in Ottawa on Aug. 27, 2009.


British Columbia leads the country when it comes to stepping on the privacy rights of people who need police information checks for employment, says a report by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

In what Ms. Denham is calling her most important report, she concluded too much mental health and other information unrelated to convictions is being revealed to employers.

Government and police boards should immediately stop providing mental-health information as part of the documentation released in checks, said Ms. Denham's report, released Tuesday.

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She's also calling for legislation stopping the release of information where a conviction hasn't been obtained, unless the jobs involve working with children or other vulnerable people.

"The time has come to find a new way forward in B.C. that meets the legitimate business interests of employers while respecting the fundamental rights of our citizens, including their statutory privacy rights," said Ms. Denham's 42-page report, Use of Police Information Checks in British Columbia.

Her report said thousands of these police checks are used by employers and volunteer groups every year in the hiring process and the information, which often goes beyond criminal records, can have lasting and profound impacts on a person's privacy.

"I've stated the system is broken," Ms. Denham said in an interview. "The release of non-

conviction information is putting employers in an untenable position of contravention our privacy laws."

She said some people have given up looking for work because of what is contained in their police information checks – information that is not related to criminal convictions.

"We heard from hundreds of people," Ms. Denham said. "We heard from individuals who have been stigmatized because of the release of mental-health information."

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The report includes several examples of people – identified only by first names – affected by the police reports.

The people were not convicted of crimes.

Shannon told the commissioner she was not hired for a job because she was once arrested for theft, but never charged. She said her employer saw the theft arrest and decided not to hire her.

Another case involved a man named Greg, who contemplated suicide and ended up calling a crisis line for help. Police were called and Greg was taken to hospital.

Six months later when Greg was asked to volunteer to help coach his son's sports team, a police information check reported that Greg was at a risk to harm himself. Ms. Denham's report said he did not volunteer to coach the team.

"When somebody goes for a background check in B.C. today for these positions, non-conviction information is searched and used, and that means information about allegations that haven't led to investigations, investigations that haven't led to charges and charges that haven't led to convictions," said Ms. Denham.

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"Mental health apprehensions, suicide attempts, all of this information is legitimate to be in the hands of police for law enforcement purposes, but should not be disclosed to a prospective employer," she said.

Many other provinces in Canada also allow the release of private information for police information checks, but B.C. is the worst for releasing mental health information to employers.

Attorney-General and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a statement she will consider Ms. Denham's recommendations and consult with stakeholders, but she made no promises about creating legislation.

The statement said the government and Ms. Denham support the effort to ensure people with criminal records and other issues don't end up caring for children or other vulnerable people, but there appears to be a gap when it comes to providing employers with information about employees looking for work beyond the vulnerable sector.

"With regard to police information checks, it's important to keep in mind that many serious incidents investigated by police don't result in criminal convictions but may still be relevant," said Ms. Anton's statement.

Vancouver Constable Brian Montague said the department does release mental health information, but not in every case.

"In some circumstances, yes," said Constable Montague. "We still do provide it in some cases, I know it's a subject that's raised some concerns. We continue to look at that and we continue to look at our policies to see if changes need to be made. "

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