Sask. police make their case
After a decade of recommendations from the privacy commissioner’s office, why are municipal police in Saskatchewan still not legislated under information access and privacy legislation? In a new three-part series, the Leader-Post examines arguments from those who say it’s time for Saskatchewan’s police to fall in line with forces across the country, and others who feel that would endanger both police and the public.
Putting Saskatchewan’s municipal police under freedom of information and privacy legislation would be a pricey proposition for the Regina Police Service, according to its chief.
It would require hiring at least another staff member, and the money is something Chief Troy Hagen says could be better spent elsewhere.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if this position certainly would be probably pushing six figures,” said Hagen.
Although Hagen hasn’t seen Saskatchewan’s former privacy commissioner Gary Dickson’s recommendations “verbatim,” he said the nature of police work doesn’t match up with the principles of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act.
“There are obviously several aspects of our work that’s not in anyone’s interest, the public’s or anyone’s interest, that it be disclosed. And that’s pertaining to specific operations within the police service, and I think everyone acknowledges that fact,” said Hagen.
Some of that information includes staffing levels of investigative units, or the cost to run a drug unit. These are queries Hagen said FOIP’s legal exemptions wouldn’t cover.
“There are a host of questions that I suppose that someone may ask that really would compromise, to a large extent, the integrity of the police service, and the operations and most importantly the independence of the police service,” said Hagen.
Hagen wouldn’t comment on the fact that in many other provinces, police fall under some manner of FOIP legislation.
“I’m not familiar with the other privacy legislation around the country …” said Hagen.
While proponents of FOIP argue it helps keep organizations accountable, Saskatoon Police Service Chief Clive Weighill said police already take steps to ensure transparency. Besides answering inquiries directly, both it and the RPS allow budgets and crime stats to be made public. However, he acknowledged police aren’t required to share the information.
“We’re not being forced to do it, but we do it because we’re just trying to be a good community partner,” said Weighill.
He also pointed out that the Saskatchewan Police Commission files annual public reports on the use of force by police in the province.
Like Hagen, Weighill has concerns over the resources it would take to follow FOIP legislation, saying it would make the process of taking information requests very “formalized.” He’s also uneasy about requests exposing police operations, and said FOIP’s legal exemptions aren’t substantial enough to prevent that from happening.
While Saskatchewan is in the minority when it comes to not covering municipal police, he said it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I don’t think because the rest of the country is doing something different means that we’re doing something wrong here in Saskatchewan. I firmly believe we’re very transparent,” said Weighill.
It is public knowledge that police have protested information being made public. This was seen in 2006 when Moose Jaw Police Service members filed complaints with the privacy commissioner’s office that the City of Moose Jaw did not have the right to release police salaries, a practice the city successfully defended.
Despite that dispute, current Moose Jaw police Chief Rick Bourassa doesn’t see the police’s absence from the legislation as a barrier to transparency.
“I don’t know all the details or the nuance around that request. That was before my time, so I’m not entirely up to speed on it, but in general police salaries have been published all the time and it’s never been an issue,” said Bourassa.
Asking for Regina City Hall to provide you with a document is very different from asking the Regina Police Service for a record. And because of that difference, Neil Robertson says putting municipal police under information and privacy law might not be such a good idea.
Robertson, who previously served as legal counsel to both the City of Regina and the Regina Police Service, released his own extensive report on third-party access to police records in 2013.
As opposed to municipal governments, which operate on the basis that all information falls within the public’s right to know, confidentiality is essential for police.
“Police officers not only are subject to the oath of secrecy, but in the discipline code there’s a major discipline offence for improper disclosure of information… and police officers and civilians have been, to my knowledge, dismissed or disciplined when breaches occurred,” said Robertson.
So why were police not included in Saskatchewan’s Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (LA FOIP) act?
Robertson says the exclusion of police from the legislation relates directly to a report commissioned by the government in 1981, 12 years before Saskatchewan’s LA FOIP act came to be.
The report, written by E. M. Culliton, made recommendations on what the province’s FOIP act should look like if the government chose to create such legislation. Culliton wrote that regardless of any exemptions, it would be impossible to allow access to police records while also ensuring there would be no repercussions against police investigations.
If the province were to enact a FOIP law, Culliton recommended “people who co-operate with the government or with the police forces in the discharge of their respective duties, should be assured of continued confidentiality.”
Although private parties may want access to police records, Robertson said the courts have made it clear those requests cannot trump the interest of the general public. In his report, Robertson cites several decisions in Saskatchewan cases where the court refused requests to disclose police records because the information would be so detrimental to the public interest.
In a 2000 judgment over a case involving sexual assault allegations made by a Mr. Stevenson against a Mr. Bellgarde, a judge denied Stevenson’s requests for access to Regina Police Service records of the investigation into the alleged assaults.
Although the accuser thought the records may be valuable to the case, the Queen’s Bench Justice found that the records should not be released because of the damage it would cause to those who had been interviewed by police during the investigation.
Despite issues that could come with putting police under the jurisdiction of LA FOIP, Robertson still says the topic is worth discussing.
The reason for police’s concern over secrecy comes down to earning the public’s trust. Robertson explains that because police rely on information collected from members of the public on the basis that it be kept confidential, they want to hold up their end of the bargain.
“Police rely more on the information they get from the public than information they discover themselves, so it’s very important to promote public co-operation with police,” said Robertson.