Police need clear rules on DNA sampling, review concludes
July 12, 2016
Toronto Star | Police were “overly broad” when they collected DNA samples from 100 migrant workers in Elgin County following a 2013 sex assault, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director said Tuesday.
And while Gerry McNeilly said the practice fell short of racial profiling, the independent police review director said the DNA canvassing “certainly had an impact on migrant workers’ sense of vulnerability.”
Following an investigation into the incident, the OIPRD is calling for a new and “highly public” policy governing how DNA canvassing occurs within the Ontario police system.
There were calls of “shame” in the room as McNeilly explained his findings at a news conference. “This is racism, Gerry. You’re perpetuating racism,” a man in the room shouted.
Dozens of migrant workers voluntarily gave DNA samples to investigators, although many of them did not fit the description of the suspect other than for the colour of their skin. Police later arrested a suspect in connection to the incident.
McNeilly said the Elgin County OPP failed to recognize whether the migrant workers offering DNA samples were truly consenting to the practice. They also failed to make sure the decisions made by employees in regards to the DNA canvassing were kept private from their employers and didn’t explain if and how the DNA samples would be destroyed.
McNeilly’s recommendations for new policy planks include making sure the OPP develops an over-arching policy to govern how and when DNA sweeps are conducted, and being transparent about how and when DNA samples are destroyed.
DNA canvasses must be conducted in compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code, McNeilly said in his summary. DNA canvassing that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion or place of origin – rather than on reasonable suspicion – is unlawful, he wrote.
“Some may focus, whether in agreement of disagreement, on my finding that the OPP officers were not motivated by racial prejudice or guided by stereotypical assumptions about persons of colour or migrant workers. Others may focus on my finding that the decision to seek DNA samples from all migrant workers of colour, regardless of their physical characteristics, could well have had an impact on the migrant workers’ sense of vulnerability, lack of security and fairness,” McNeilly wrote in his executive summary report, Casting the Net: A Review of Ontario Provincial Police Practices for DNA Canvasses.
“Both perspectives have validity. But ultimately, the findings give context to important recommendations designed to promote effective, bias-free policing and enhance police-community relations, particularly with those who are vulnerable. I believe that is the common goal of every stakeholder who participated in this systemic review. And for that, I am grateful,” he wrote.
While conducting the review, the OIPRD interviewed 10 officers from Elgin County OPP, civilian witnesses and 32 of the migrant workers.
It also reviewed officers’ notes, statements, meeting minutes, audio and video of interview recordings, photos, forensic evidence and police policies.
Workers from Tillsonburg, Ont. were subjected to a DNA testing sweep in connection to a violent sexual assault, even though for many their only similarity to the suspect’s description was skin colour.
Men whose characteristics differed widely from the suspect’s description were asked to submit to a DNA test.
Justicia for Migrant Workers, a group that found and interviewed 44 of the 100 people who voluntarily gave samples, learned that roughly half of those they spoke to were shorter than the specified height of the suspect, and about half were older than 41, when the suspect was said to be in his 20s.
The OPP later arrested a man who didn’t appear to be one of the 100 migrant workers asked to voluntarily provide a DNA sample to police, according to Justicia.
At the time of the review’s announcement, then-OPP commissioner Chris Lewis responded to the complaint, saying, “As an organization, we do not permit our employees to engage in racial profiling.”
A spokesman for the OPP said in 2014 the force would co-operate with the review and that they were confident in their investigative practices.
The OIPRD is responsible for conducting systemic reviews of police practices and following up on individual complaints about police conduct, policy and service issues.
Past systemic reviews looked at how police services handle mental illness among their ranks, and the policing of the G20 Summit in 2010.Back