Why won't police share information after a public incident?

Daily Brew

Why the secrecy? That’s what a lot of Torontonians are asking about the police response to a double shooting at a city McDonald’s last February. The public has been told very little about the incident, except that a private security guard who was working near the fast food restaurant stopped in to grab a bite when he became engaged in a significant confrontation with two young men whom he subsequently shot and killed.

The public doesn’t know exactly why the guard shot the men, what triggered the altercation or how it escalated, though there’s speculation that the guard felt his life was in danger. The public also doesn’t know the guard’s name, nor where he was working before he stopped into McDonald’s; only the name of the company that employs him has been released. Finally, surveillance video of the event has not been viewed outside of police offices.

There is a huge difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in.
Mark Pugash, Toronto Police

In a statement, Toronto Police Services said their investigation showed there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction,” so the guard would not face criminal charges. Responding to questions about the decision to withhold all other information about how the shooting happened, Mark Pugash, spokesperson for Toronto Police, told the Toronto Star: “There is a huge difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in.”

But not everyone sees that distinction. Instead, the police department’s handling of the situation has raised questions about what the public has a right to know following such a serious public event.

The right to privacy

Generally speaking, police in Canada have a lot of discretion about what they choose to share with the media and the general public. Vancouver Police Department spokesman Randy Fincham explains that in B.C., for example, the name and details about an individual connected to an offense would never be disclosed until the province’s crown counsel had laid criminal charges.

“The overlying principle for any police agency is that anyone who is charged with a criminal offense is to be provided their time in court to answer to the charges. Every person, regardless of their status or position, is entitled to that, so we can’t invade someone’s privacy or jeopardize court proceedings by sharing information,” he said.

If we identified every person facing allegations, we’d start destroying lives.
Vancouver Police Department spokesman Randy Fincham

 In a scenario where no charges are being laid, or a person is cleared of all charges, the identity of the alleged offender and other case facts would remain private in most cases, even if a concerned person were to file a freedom of information request. Any file that would be released would be vetted to protect the privacy of the person who had been investigated, Fincham said.

Sure, there’s a chance that private details about a major case would be shared if it’s in the public interest, he added, but every case must be evaluated on its own merits.

“You can imagine what would happen if we shared the details about an innocent person who had been accused of a crime. If we identified every person facing allegations, we’d start destroying lives.”

By contrast, those faced with charges in the U.S. face entirely different rules. There, the particulars of an investigation are a matter of public record as soon as an investigation is closed. This means that if an person has been cleared of a charge, that fact is also part of the public record.

“The U.S. has a better access to information system than Canada. It’s certainly more open,” says Megan Drysdale, editorial and events coordinator for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a non-governmental group. She points out that the results of the latest global Right To Information (RTI) Rating survey put Canada in 59th place worldwide for the quality of its country’s access to information system, while the U.S. was higher up the list at 45.

“In Canada we have more in place for exemptions and not everything is covered anyway, so [government bodies] are able to withhold more information and reject more requests,” Drysdale said.

The McDonald’s incident is far from the only case in which police officials have sat on information the Canadian public has asked for. The RCMP have been criticized for holding back information and turning down Freedom of Information Act requests related to several issues. Most recently, Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), released a statement “expressing serious concern that the federal government and the RCMP are withholding important and sensitive information about violence against Indigenous women and girls.” The letter demanded that the records be shared immediately.

‘It’s important to be as transparent as possible’

In a case where there's been someone killed, we would release information about the circumstances of the shooting, even if no charges were brought.
Billy Grogan, chief of police, Dunwoody, Georgia

Given the state of relations between police and many communities, “it’s more important than ever for law enforcement agencies to be as transparent as possible,” Billy Grogan, chief of police in the City of Dunwoody, Georgia tells Yahoo Canada. He feels so strongly about this issue that he blogs about the use of social media—a tool to support transparency, he says —for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) website.

“In a case where there's been someone killed, in general, here in the States, and in Dunwoody in particular, we would release information about the circumstances of the shooting, even if no charges were brought,” he says, speaking only hypothetically. “If there is a justified reason not to press charges, from my perspective, there's no reason to not to release that information.”

Obviously there are times when the department can't be as transparent as it is would like, he allows, but when an investigation is complete, the matter is on public record anyway (in most states), so enforcement agencies should share it.

In fact, he likes to get information out quickly, even during an investigation, when it’s a matter of public interest. For example, to make citizens feel safe about a recent home invasion and murder of two elderly homeowners in the city, he announced that the police had determined it wasn’t a random act before the investigation had closed.

“We needed to let people know that there wasn’t somebody running around killing people in their homes,” he said.

Many organizations, including the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, are working to make access to information more of an election issue in Canada before fall voting begins.

“The Information Commissioner put out a report with multiple recommendations,” Drysdale said.

“So now there’ll need to be discussion about which will be upheld — and which will be ignored.”