For decades the Toronto Police Service has been criticized for ordering “a very large portion of people arrested” to take off their clothing while at a police station or sometimes even at the side of a road.
“Strip-search opportunities are abused elsewhere, but not as systemically or as regularly as they are in the city of Toronto,” says criminal defence Lawyer, Kim Schofield.
In January of this year, data shows Toronto Police performed strip-searches on more than 270 people per week. That’s 40 times higher than any other big city police service in Ontario. In February, that number dropped dramatically to about 40 per week.
A scathing 2019 report issued by Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) noted that across Ontario, there are approximately 22,000 strip-searches conducted by police each year, with the vast majority taking place in the city of Toronto. More than four out of every 10 people arrested by Toronto police have been ordered to remove their clothing in recent years.
Toronto Police Deputy Chief, Peter Yuen, admitted to CityNews, “when that report came out, it really took us to task.”
The report resulted in an internal investigation of the force’s strip-search policies, which began about six months ago. The review is being led by Yuen.
“We’ve acknowledged from within and with community input, that we needed to change. We’ve seen the changes quiet drastically. As a result, we put in a number of measures, including reviewing our procedures, training and accountability,” he said.
The force is now using electric batons and other technology in an effort to decrease the number of searches, which can often be a degrading experience for someone who hasn’t even been convicted of a crime.
Schofield says the recent steps have been a long time coming.
“Toronto police, after 20 years, are finally responding to some very harsh criticism,” she said.
In 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark decision on the legality of strip-searches, defining the legal parameters within which strip-searches were justifiable. It is known across the country as the “Golden Rule.”
Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, a member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, has been pleading with Toronto police to make reforms to their strip-search policy consistently for almost two decades.
“It took them 19 years to change their policy, it’s just beyond belief. I think it shows how the Toronto Police Board and service are out of control. I believe the Toronto police had a policy of deliberately demeaning and degrading an awful lot of people they arrested,” says Sewell.
Advocates and lawyers alike have often noted that unlawful strip-searches have, at times, done a disservice to the public, with dangerous criminals having their charges thrown out of court.
“Someone arrested on serious gun charges, their case can get thrown out. Evidence can get thrown out because of improper strip-searches. Impaired drivers go free because police don’t understand, or are oblivious to, or systemically don’t care what the Supreme Court of Canada has said for the last 20 years,” notes Schofield.
Yuen agrees there’s systemic elements to the number of strip-searches historically done by police, but remains adamant that “strip-searching is a necessary practice in policing, because people do require us to conduct a comprehensive strip search.”
He also points out the new approach now being taken by Toronto police has been praised as the “gold standard” by the OIPRD, which is recommending other services follow their lead.
However, even the recent decrease in the number of strip-searches leave Toronto police about eight times more likely to conduct one over other police services in Ottawa or London, Ontario.
“The decrease speaks volumes of what’s been happening recently, but it also speaks volumes of what is happening in the past,” says Schofield. “It’s important for everyone to remain vigilant on this because this dramatic decrease may signal a systemic shift or it may signal that we’re just doing this for now and we may go back to the way we used to do things.”
Deputy Chief Yuen says the changes are here to stay and updated data will be shared with the Toronto Police Board in the months ahead.