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Councillor queries content of background checks

‘Simple contacts’ with police officers shouldn’t register, Whitehead says

By Laura Lennie, News Staff

A member of the Hamilton police services board says he wants to ensure incidental contacts with police don’t go on people’s records.

Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead said he’s concerned by media reports that criminal background checks can include instances where people were swept up in a police investigation, but never charged. The background checks are often required by employers or volunteer organizations, especially where children are involved.

“I think, for the most part, the majority of people believe that in this society when you go to court, you get a conviction, then that is your police record,” he said. “No one ever imagined that even if you had the simplest of contacts with the police services or you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and you got identified in part of an investigation, that possibly would be part of a report that goes to a potential employer or who’s doing the police check. And, to me, that’s just unfathomable.”

Whitehead raised the concern during a presentation to the board last Tuesday on the progress of Hamilton police’s new online service for criminal background checks.

The service was made available last November through the police website and allows citizens to apply for criminal record checks and use their credit information for authentication. It eliminates the need for people to apply for criminal record, police information and vulnerable sector checks at police headquarters.

Records manager Peter Bailey, who provided the board with the update, said after the meeting that Hamilton police adheres to guidelines on police screening established by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP).

The guidelines vary slightly from province to province, but not by very much, he said.

“We don’t release information where somebody has been investigated for a crime, but they were never informed of it,” Bailey said. “We don’t release information where there was an investigation, but it turned out to be what we call unfounded, so that would be consistent across the country. Across the country, all police services would release conviction information.”

Bailey said most, but not all, police services in Ontario follow the provincial guidelines.

“Those guidelines are being revamped to be more restrictive in terms of the release of non-conviction information,” he said. “We have already made proactive steps to be much more restrictive in what we release. What we release today, compared to what we released a year ago, is substantially less.”

Bailey added Hamilton police “very rarely” will release non-conviction information.

“The only time we would release non-conviction information is if there is a legitimate concern for public safety and in particular, the safety of vulnerable persons,” he said. “We will still air on the side of caution. Protection of the public has always been our first priority.”

Hamilton police also have a system in place where citizens can appeal information that’s released in their police record checks.

Bailey said the service doesn’t release the results of the check to anybody other than the applicant.

They have the opportunity to review the information and challenge it if they feel there’s something on there that shouldn’t be, he added.

“Upon review, we may elect to withhold that information that we previously released,” Bailey said. “The reconsideration process has been in place for a couple of years now. About 95 per cent of the requests go through successfully.”

Bailey said Hamilton police are aware employers can sometimes take a more “hard-line stance” on information on a police records check.

“On the online website, we have information geared directly to employers and among that information is an entire section on what happens if you have an applicant who has a criminal record or negative information,” he said. “We implore employers to treat the information responsibility, to keep it in perspective: is it truly relevant to the position you’re offering? In effect, we almost advocate for people who have criminal records or negative context.”

Whitehead said the fact that the OACP guidelines are being revamped to be more restrictive in terms of the release of non-conviction information is a “start.”

“What I’m happy to hear is that as a result of the attention brought to this issue that there will be a provincial standard – it’s a little bit of hodge-podge from police service to police service – that will give us best practices,” he said. “I want to make sure that the policy that we evolve that we’re clearly being very diligent in releasing those conviction pieces. Anything beyond that, there really has to be a high test for that to ensure that there is a risk and that’s why they’re putting it out there.”

Online service check-in experiences ‘great success’

Hamilton police records manager Peter Bailey says the service has had “great success” with its new online service for criminal background checks that debuted late last year.

“It’s exceeded our expectations,” he said. “Despite the fact that up till now we haven’t done any real advertising of it, over 900 people have made their way to the site and have used it as an alternative to coming into our lobby and waiting. We’re very encouraged by that.”

Bailey said the service is working on raising the profile of the service through social media and other means.

Some people have brought forth ideas to improve the system, he added.

“People have made suggestions on additional content that would be helpful on the site and we’ve implemented those changes,” Bailey said. “We’re also going to be revamping the services’ website soon. When that happens, we will put a much more prominent link to the online screening on the home page.”
Bailey said he expects the popularity of the service to increase.

“Ten per cent of our total number of police checks are now coming to us online,” he said. “We’re shooting for 30 per cent. That may be optimistic, but we think it’s obtainable because the convenience is there.”

For more information, visit the services’ website at www.hamiltonpolice.on.ca.

 

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