I have long had trouble understanding how something that seems so obvious to me doesn’t seem to make a dent on the conscience of those actually involved in the issue I am addressing.
I am not saying here that everyone should agree with what I write. If that were the case, if we were all of the same mind on every issue, there wouldn’t be any reason for me to write.
No, I am talking about issues to which there seems to be a common-sense solution that should be obvious to everybody.
A case in point surfaced last week when SooToday reported that Dax D’Orazio, a local who is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston where he is teaching and conducting research, had lost his appeal under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Privacy Act for “the monthly number of internal disciplinary measures applied to Sault Ste. Marie Police Service members between January 2015 and April 2021.”
The police service had denied the request and D’Orazio had appealed to the privacy commissioner.
“The service believes the Act does not apply to records collected, prepared or used for employment-related matters and providing the ‘internal disciplinary measures applied to SSMPS members’ would be disregarding these sections of the act,” the police service said in its representations provided to the Commissioner in December 2021, after several mediation attempts had failed,.
“Furthermore, the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service as an employer has an inherent interest in internal discipline and in the results thereof.
“A release of that record would release personal information about a member and this information is highly sensitive, private, and disclosure of that information could cause further personal distress.”
In a column I wrote on the issue in May 2022, I suggested, more kindly than what I was first inclined to say, that the comment was a crock.
D’Orazio had made it clear he was only looking for statistics, numbers, not personal information of any kind, so I can’t see how the release could cause anyone distress. He also pointed out other institutions had disclosed similar records.
Even if there was information revealed on a case, if no names are mentioned the only people who would know anything about it would be those who had been directly involved.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) didn’t buy his argument.
In the decision that was released on Dec. 11 but only reported on last week, adjudicator Steven Faughnan ruled that SSMPS doesn’t have to provide the information to the appellant D’Orazio but “it is free to disclose the record to the appellant outside the Act if it wishes to do so.“
He also said “the fact that other Ontario institutions may have disclosed similar information does not impact my findings.”
I believe it should have.
Sault police are not alone in not wanting to release such information but in a couple of instances the outcomes were certainly different in that they didn’t favour police.
A column by Stephen Kimber in The Halifax Examiner reveals it took a year for CBC Atlantic to wrest 11 years of internal discipline decisions from the Halifax Regional Police and then it came out in dribs and drabs.
But in the end the two sides signed a consent order in which the police “acknowledged it should not have withheld information about its internal discipline decisions from the CBC.”
In Winnipeg it took the CBC two years and several court hearings before a Court of King’s Bench justice ordered that police release similar documents.
They showed Winnipeg police officers were internally disciplined dozens of times in a five-year period, with punishments ranging from admonition to one case where an officer was fired.
No names, nothing to identify anyone, just dry statistics. Why would police hierarchy anywhere argue against releasing something like this? Is the Sault’s case possibly different? Do we have more instances of police misconduct than elsewhere and therefore could look bad? Somehow I doubt it but the withholding of such information certainly makes one wonder.
In a 2016 Toronto Star article Jesse McLean and Jayme Poisson found that internal disciplinary measures were sometimes used in cases of serious misconduct and even criminal behaviour. In response to their research, the “OPP, Peel and Halton police services released the numbers” related to internal disciplinary measures.
Through a FOI request the CBC learned that since 2012 50 members of the Calgary Police Service and 38 members of the Edmonton Police Service chose to retire or resign before internal disciplinary processes involving allegations against them were complete.
Deciding to voluntarily leave ends the disciplinary processes and there is nothing in legislation to prevent officers from working in law enforcement elsewhere.
In the list of allegations against Edmonton police officers who retired while under investigation, the category of discreditable conduct appeared most frequently, representing more than a third of the overall total.
Some police departments in the U.S. don’t seem to have a problem mentioning specific instances of internal discipline.
A Seattle Police Department officer received a written reprimand for striking a protester with “six to eight punches over six seconds.” In Grand Rapids, Michigan, an officer shot a man in the shoulder at close range with a long-range tear gas round. He received two days without pay. In Salt Lake City, an officer received “coaching and counseling” for using a shield to push an elderly man.
“I think I requested something that was minimally intrusive and wouldn’t prejudice labour relations and/or reveal specific information that’s not in the public interest,” D’Orazio said in an email. “Unfortunately, the IPC Tribunal disagreed and found that, essentially, any and all records related to internal disciplinary measures are exempt from the Act.”
He said the consequence of this is that even when internal disciplinary mechanisms are used in response to serious misconduct, the public may know nothing about it.
I thought the Sault police service made a mistake in not releasing the information when it was originally sought and I believe the IPC has just compounded that mistake with its decision.
Although the police service does not have to release the information, considering how innocuous the information being requested in this case is, it should.
Otherwise we are left with the question, what does it have to hide?