Members of the RCMP Gang Enforcement Team speaks to the occupants of a car during a stop in Surrey, B.C., Friday, May 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A controversial policing model that partners cops with health authorities, schools, and social services to intervene with people believed to be “at risk” of committing crimes is disproportionately targeting minors, and in at least one city, Indigenous women, documents obtained by VICE World News show. Documents released by the city of Surrey, British Columbia—part of Metro Vancouver—following a freedom of information request shed light on how the programs, known as Situation Tables, or Hubs, operate in that province.
Data reveals that between 2015 and 2020, adult Indigenous women were subject to 40 percent of all interventions with women in Surrey, a figure vastly disproportionate to the number of Indigenous residents, who make up only 2.6 percent of Surrey’s population. Data also shows that from January 2019 to June 2020, 198 minors in Surrey were assessed for Situation Table interventions—based on authorities’ belief they were at risk of gang activity—with the average age for intervention being 14, and the youngest, 6. Kids in neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations were subject to the most interventions. Police in B.C. were the agency most likely to be leading interventions in 2019, rather than social service agencies, the documents also show—a finding that goes against the stated purpose of Situation Tables, which is to reduce police involvement in non-criminal situations. Hubs are increasingly targeting minors in other provinces as well. Data obtained from the city of North Bay, Ontario, show that in 2018 and 2019, minors aged 12 to 17 were subject to more interventions than any other age group. Nearly three-quarters of Hub assessments in North Bay during those years were done without recorded consent.
Situation Tables bring police, social services, school boards and others together to identify people believed to be “at risk” of becoming criminals or victims of crime. Agencies deploy interventions to reduce risk and ostensibly to stop crimes before they happen. Interventions involve representatives from several agencies, usually include police, and can range from a door knock and chat to forced hospitalization or arrest. Around 150 Hubs are currently active across Canada, with the majority operating in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and B.C. There are also a dozen or so Hubs active in the U.S. The first Hub was launched in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in 2011; since then, Hubs have been rolled out by cities across the country with funding from provinces or cities themselves.
What are Situation Tables?
Little research has been conducted into the effectiveness of Hubs. While some anecdotal studies have championed the approach, criminologists have noted there’s little evidence Hubs are effective at reducing crime or victimization. Privacy advocates have criticized Hubs for tracking and sharing people’s sensitive information without consent and operating without provincial or federal oversight. People assessed by Hubs are categorized based on risk factors, such as whether they are unemployed, use drugs or alcohol, or display “negative behaviour”—defined in Hub documents as being rude, partying, or urinating in public. If Hub agencies believe someone is at high risk of committing a crime or experiencing a crisis, they can intervene without consent.
Founded in 2015, Surrey’s Hub—called the Surrey Mobilization and Resiliency Table (SMART)—was the first to launch in British Columbia. The stated goal of SMART is to “sustainably reduce and prevent incidents of crime and social disorder.” Like Hubs in Ontario and Saskatchewan, SMART records sensitive personal information about people assessed for intervention in a “de-identified” Risk Tracking Database. According to city documents, between 2015 and 2020 SMART undertook an estimated 500 interventions with individuals and families. About 200 of those interventions involved women and 80 of them were with Indigenous women.
Surrey Situation Table
“We know that our criminal justice system, child welfare systems, health care systems, and countless other societal institutions systematically discriminate against Indigenous people,” Abby Deshman, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), said in an email. “Without very careful planning, oversight, and evaluation, it is inevitable that Situation Tables will be yet another site where systemic disadvantage is further entrenched.” Documents show nearly one-fifth of all women targeted for intervention in Surrey “refused services” when confronted, suggesting they did not give consent for their information to be shared between agencies for the purposes of intervention. (Hub agencies are not required to obtain consent to launch an intervention.) A spokesperson for the city of Surrey said in an email that SMART does not track if consent is received from people it assesses.
In 2019, Surrey launched a kids-only offshoot of SMART, called Children and Youth At-Risk Table (CHART). CHART data reveals that children as young as 6 have been labelled as being at risk of gang activity and confronted by authorities, with 14 being the average age of kids subject to intervention. Surrey neighbourhoods Newton and Guildford, home to large immigrant populations, are the most frequent targets for interventions.“It is shocking that the City of Surrey would think it necessary to create a formal Situation Table for children as young as 6,” said Deshman of the CCLA, noting that without proper oversight, “Situation Tables can easily draw kids into the criminal justice system and (perpetuate) the systemic race-based discrimination that already permeates (it).”
Children and Youth At-Risk Table
From January 2019 to December 2020, 139 CHART cases had been opened with “explicit consent of the clients” and 96 without, the spokesperson said.Hubs are also targeting minors elsewhere in Canada. Data obtained from health authorities in North Bay, Ontario, shows that in 2018 and 2019, kids aged 12 to 17 were subject to the most Hub interventions of any age group, accounting for 34 percent of all interventions.
Most Hubs encourage member agencies to obtain consent from individuals before sharing their personal information with the Hub, but there is no requirement for agencies to do so.In North Bay, consent to share personal information was recorded in just 74 out of a total of 282 Hub discussions performed in 2018 and 2019. Of those 282 discussions, 270 led to intervention. Police were both the top originating agency and the top assisting agency for interventions. “The consent field within the Risk Tracking Database (RTD) is not a mandatory field and therefore this data was not consistently captured at the Situation Table,” Stephanie Beausoleil, coordinator of the North Bay Hub, said in an email.Dr. David Malloy, principal of King’s University College in Ontario and a health care ethicist, was a board member of the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance (CSKA), a nonprofit that promotes the Hub model, from 2016 to 2019. In an interview with VICE World News, Malloy said he was unaware of the “specifics” of how Hubs work during his time on the CSKA board and said obtaining informed consent before sharing people's data is “critical” from an ethical perspective.
Consent not required
“It’s a primary obligation to ask and receive consent before any data is shared,” Malloy said. “Informed consent is front and centre to everything we do as academics (and) a foundational principle for any research.” Malloy said sharing data without informed consent could be considered a potential violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Verna George, special advisor on Indigenous issues with the CCLA, said the lack of consent in Hub interventions raises concerns. “Despite being touted as ‘best practice,’ there is little to no publicly available evidence that Situation Tables are effective,” George said in an email. “We’re past the point where there should be rigorous objective research published to document whether the privacy-intrusive information sharing at these tables—often without consent—results in demonstrable benefit to the affected individuals.”
Proponents of Hubs say the approach saves cities money by reducing calls for service from emergency services while also preventing crime. But the two cities home to the oldest Hubs in Canada—Prince Albert and Toronto—have not experienced consistent declines in crime since adopting the approach. Toronto’s homicide rate is generally climbing; sexual assaults, vehicle thefts, and break-and-enters in the city all increased from 2018 to 2019. Prince Albert continues to be one of the most violent cities in Canada despite fluctuations in the crime rate.
Evidence base ‘virtually non-existent’
Dr. Laura Huey, a criminologist at the University of Western Ontario and founder of the Canadian Society for Evidence-Based Policing, has said that because Hubs don’t track outcomes, it’s impossible to measure their true impact. Claims that Hubs reduce calls for emergency services are also based on flawed logic, Huey said in a blog post, noting that people targeted by Hubs who stop calling police after interventions could have stopped calling for a number of reasons—for example, they may be in jail, dead, or out of the province.
Proponents claim that Hubs save cities money, but police budgets in cities with Hubs continue to grow: Prince Albert and North Bay both increased police budgets for 2021. Surrey is cutting the budget of local RCMP by 25 percent in 2021—but the purpose of the cuts is to help pay for the creation of a new city police force. Police in Toronto initially requested a budget increase in 2021 but backed down after criticism from residents and city councillors following last year’s Defund the Police protests. The city’s annual police budget is still in excess of $1 billion. Some Situation Tables also receive provincial and federal funding. In Ontario, the Ministry of the Solicitor General has allocated $4.3 million to fund nine Situation Tables through 2022. (The other 50-plus Hubs in the province are funded by municipalities.) The federal government has also poured $2 million into Hubs in Ottawa and Toronto in an effort to counter violent extremism; Ottawa’s Hub was quietly shut down in 2020 when federal funding ran out. Semir Bulle, co-founder of Doctors For Defunding Police, a coalition of more than 600 physicians across Canada demanding that police budgets be reduced to pay for new mental health and education services, said money spent on Situation Tables could be put to better use. “The idea that we need to give the police more money to solve problems that are caused by communities having a chronic lack of resources and being over-policed is ridiculous,” Bulle said in an email. “We need to be honest about the causes of crime—such as lack of opportunities, failures in the education system, and poverty—and shift our focus to fully investing into those solutions.”