Toronto police vulnerable persons registry welcome but privacy questions remain, experts say

When Faith Munoz's seven-year-old son bolted from his north Toronto elementary school two years ago, her first thought was: Is he safe?

The happy, curious second-grader who lives with autism made it about one block away, running past teachers and adults, she says, before a fellow student who had been helping to guard the crosswalk noticed him and brought him back.

"It was just a fear like no other," Munoz told CBC News. 

That wasn't the first time her son had run away. Another time, it took her 25 minutes to find him at a crowded amusement park.

Every day, Munoz says, she lives with the worry about the next time her little one decides to run. 

But a new vulnerable persons registry launched by the Toronto Police Service aims to ease that fear.

'It takes away a bit of the anxiety'

The voluntary initiative is meant to allow members of the public to share valuable information about themselves, those in their care or over whom they have power of attorney. The goal: to help first responders better handle encounters with people in crisis. 

The information collected includes:

  • The person's name. 
  • Date of birth, address, description.
  • Contact details for people who might be able to assist.
  • Behaviours the person might exhibit and recommended de-escalation strategies. 
  • Locations they might frequent should they go missing and trigger subjects to avoid.

A photograph and medical information can also be submitted, with data stored for two years unless otherwise requested by the person making the submission.

Michael Rich/CBC

On its website, the force says the information would be used only as background by officers unless a person goes missing. In those cases, a name, photo and description could be shared with media, public transit and hospitals to help locate someone.

"The information provided in the Vulnerable Persons Registry will not be provided to potential employers or other civilian organizations," the force says on its page.

It's a move Munoz says she's thrilled about.

"My first thought was this was amazing. It's a great opportunity for kids who have disabilities to be better supported by the police," she said. "It takes away a bit of the anxiety from us."

Giving context to 'unknown trouble' calls

Already, says Toronto Police Sgt. Paul Jones, entries have begun trickling in.

Jones says he was assigned about five years ago to work on an initiative like this one in relation to missing persons. Shortly after that work begun, he says, Justice Frank Iacobucci published a landmark report on police interactions with people in crisis. 

That, he says, sparked a realization that a tool like this one could make a difference in cases involving mental health problems among other challenges.

"We've seen anything, from people like one individual who maybe had a substance abuse problem and wanted to register themselves … It could be parents wanting to register their child for whatever reason, because they're concerned about them wandering or going missing," Jones said.

"In a lot of cases, we get calls for what we call 'unknown trouble.' We go in and we don't know what's going on," he said.

"We may hear call someone saying there's been screaming, yelling, someone's throwing furniture around ... We walk in the door and we see something a behaviour being exhibited that we have no real context for understanding," Jones added.

"But if we have this information available to us it gives us a little more background."

'Who is going to have oversight?'

At first blush, says criminal defence lawyer Mohamed El Rashidy, the initiative is encouraging.

"I think on its face, when Chief Mark Saunders says it's a partnership between the communities and the police, that's always a very positive step," he said, adding that too often people with mental health conditions find their way into the criminal justice system instead of getting the help they need. 

Toronto Police Service

But he warns anytime a government or policing agency is entrusted with personal data, the public needs to exercise caution. Police, he says, already have wide-reaching powers in Canada, and access to information as delicate as this means safeguards are all the more important.  

"The question when you collect data that is as sensitive as this is how will there be accountability? Who is going to have oversight to know whether this information is being used as it's intended to be used and whether are are risks for breaches of security?" El Rashidy asked. 

El Rashidy also points out that the registry may contain photos of vulnerable people — something that could make them immediately identifiable online in the event of a data breach.

Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, shares some of those concerns. The previous head of the civilian body overseeing the police force stepped down from the board in 2015, coming out forcefully against the practice of carding in the days that followed.

Questions linger about privacy

"Theoretically, registries should be helpful. On the other hand, there are clearly big questions that have not been answered," he said.

Mukherjee points to the case of Andrew Loku, who was shot dead by police within minutes of their arrival at an apartment building in Toronto in 2015. The 45-year-old father of five had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after being kidnapped in Sudan. Police found him wielding a hammer, with the officer who fired the fatal shots later testifying he feared for his life.

Chris Dunseith/CBC

"The police claimed in the inquest that they had no knowledge about his mental health even though Loku had been suffering from mental health [problems]," said Mukherjee.

But Mukherjee also points out he has seen cases where people have been prevented from entering the United States simply because of a police report about them previously having been suicidal.

"So, I think there are a lot of unanswered questions around the operation, management, control and access of the registry," he told CBC News. "As far as I can tell from what I've seen today those issues are not answered." 

Jones, the Toronto Police sergeant, points out that built into the process is a rule that if a person wants to update or remove information from the registry, police will comply "without question," adding the information collected through it won't be accessible through the police portal to any other agencies.

"It's not meant to be used for the purposes of doing anything untoward to a person," he said, adding anyone with a concern or question about the initiative is welcome to contact police.

"It's really just meant to give them more assistance."