In the wake of last month’s deadly Nova Scotia shooting rampage, the Toronto police board has asked the force to review if there are any “vulnerabilities” that could allow a member of the public to access officer uniforms or equipment.
As part of a review of the “critical issues” highlighted by the April tragedy, the civilian board has also asked Toronto police chief Mark Saunders to examine the use of public alerts and other communication tools that would be used during an incident “likely to be of significant public interest,” according to a motion passed at Thursday’s meeting.
The request comes after a gunman killed 22 people during a 13-hour shooting spree in rural Nova Scotia before he was shot and killed by police at a gas station. The gunman was dressed in a Mountie uniform driving a replica RCMP cruiser, a disguise that has been cited as a reason he was able to travel around the region for hours.
Investigators are continuing to probe how the gunman was able to acquire the replica or authentic equipment; according to affidavit documents made public this week, police believe he obtained parts of his uniform from a retired RCMP member.
Connie Osborne, a spokesperson for the Toronto police, said members of the public are not allowed to access or purchase police uniforms or equipment, new or used. Decommissioned police cars are city-owned property, “so if they are auctioned through a vendor it is facilitated by them,” she said.
The RCMP has also come under fire for not issuing a provincewide emergency alert letting members of the public know a killer was on the loose.
Saunders will report back to the board with the results of the review in September.
Thursday’s board meeting, which was held virtually, also saw the civilian board approve a draft policy for accessing the province’s controversial COVID-19 database. The portal provides first responders with the names, addresses and dates of birth of people who have tested positive for the virus.
The portal, intended to let first responders obtain COVID-19 positive status information for individuals they may come in contact with, was dubbed “an extraordinary invasion of privacy” late last month by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and other advocacy groups.
It has not yet been used by the Toronto police, Saunders said.
“I have not turned it on,” Saunders said. “I do understand the sensitivities, and some of the issues and concerns that are brought up, and I also see some of the elements of the fact that we are having our police officers breaking that physical distancing guideline each and every single day.”
Sam Tecle, a member of the public who made a deputation Thursday, expressed concern about a lack of clarity on who could access the database, and its utility, if officers are already following best public health practices.
“If all members are wearing appropriate personal protective equipment in any interactions with the public, what may be the need or the requirement to look up the information of testing status or results?” Tecle asked the board.
Toronto police board member Uppala Chandrasekera said she supported the idea of information sharing if it is used to increase public and officer safety. But she is concerned about the disclosure of “highly sensitive healthcare information” and asked how a dispatcher with access to the database was going to relay the information to the officer.
Saunders said he has posed these questions to the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police; right now, he said, there are too many unanswered questions about how the information will be shared and used.
“In order to get this right I want to make sure that… I have a clear and comprehensive understanding of what the answers are before I turn anything on,” Saunders said.
The board approved a draft policy stating that the portal would be accessible only to authorized users within the communication and dispatch centres, who are then able to query COVID-19 status.
Get more of what matters in your inbox
Start your morning with everything you need to know, and nothing you don’t. Sign up for First Up, the Star’s new daily email newsletter.
Sign Up Now
They would only be able to perform searches for “specific and limited defined purposes,” including supporting front-line officers in making “informed decisions to reduce the risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19.”
“As the portal contains personal health information of a sensitive nature, it is vital to put into place stringent and appropriate safeguards to limit access to this information to the greatest extent possible,” the draft policy states.