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Toronto police stop disclosing psychological information in background checks

Toronto police are joining the ranks of an increasing number of Canadian police services that, in the past year, have stopped disclosing psychological information on potential employees or volunteers who will work with children or vulnerable people.

MARK BLINCH/The Globe and Mail

Until this week, when community organizations asked Toronto police to check into the background of a potential hire, the results could go far beyond convictions. Suicide attempts and other mental-health crises witnessed by police would all show up if the employer asked for mental-health information.

As of Monday, that practice is over. Toronto police are joining the ranks of an increasing number of Canadian police services that, in the past year, have stopped disclosing psychological information on potential employees or volunteers who will work with children or vulnerable people.

The change was announced in a May 20 memo to a number of organizations.

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Mental-health crises can lead to police calls, but records of them should be considered private health information irrelevant to criminal risk, said Joe Couto, a spokesman for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. Holding back the information would not endanger those who would be in contact with the employees, including people living in shelters and children in schools and daycares, he said.

"There's really no downside, necessarily," he said.

Police record checks are "just one tool" to ensure public safety, Mr. Couto said. "Really, our focus has to be on having the very best mental-health system in Canada so those folks don't get dragged into the justice system."

A set of guidelines that the police chiefs association published last June helped spark a national wave of change. About 80 per cent of Ontario's police forces had adopted the guidelines about six months after they were released, Mr. Couto said.

"I had calls from all over Canada when we issued those guidelines saying, 'Hey, can you share that with us?'" he said.

In Toronto, police had issued mental-health information only when specifically asked for it by employers providing social services in the "vulnerable sector," according to the force's website. When officers apprehend people under the Mental Health Act and take them to the hospital for assessment, that is noted in a police database, the website said.

Until now, people could ask Toronto police to exempt mental-health information in background checks, but police considered requests on a case-by-case basis, looking at such things as how long ago the incident occurred and any medical assessment provided.

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According to the May 20 memo, background checks will no longer reference any "incidents involving mental health contact."

In the past, incidents such as suicide attempts could be included in the reports, said Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House in Toronto, a crisis centre for homeless youth that serves 300 people aged 16 to 24 each day.

Covenant House's hiring process includes two or three face-to-face interviews and two or three personal and professional references as well as the police check. Mr. Rivers, who worked for three decades at Children's Aid Society, said he did not think it would be harder to screen candidates properly without police evidence of psychological struggles.

"Will they result in a criminal episode? If they do, then the police intervene, charge and document that act," he said. "And definitely I would consider that. But a mental health episode ... is definitely not a segue to criminal activity in my mind, by any means. In fact, sometimes someone with a lived experience [of mental illness] can in fact, in some situations, be a real asset, I think."

British Columbia was the first province to make a widespread policy change when its privacy commissioner ordered police forces last April to stop disclosing mental-health information. The Vancouver Police Department revised its practices in January.

Ontario will be one of the first provinces to formalize the change when the Community Safety Minister tables legislation on it in the coming weeks.

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"I don't think it's very far off," said ministry spokeswoman Lauren Callighen. "It's an important initiative for us as a ministry and the government as a whole, to make sure that we're supporting public safety but also protecting civil liberties as well."

Although policing is a provincial responsibility, Mr. Couto said it is hoped that the patchwork changes will result in a "coast-to-coast" policy. Police chiefs will study the Ontario legislation, which ideally would give police "some discretion depending on cases," he said.

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