Police officers in Toronto are now using “full body scanners” as alternatives to strip searches, making it the first police force in the country to adopt the technology.
Two different body scanning technologies will be used by officers in 14 Division, which covers several diverse neighborhoods in downtown Toronto, as part of a six-month pilot study to determine if the scanners will be adopted by the entire force.
Police touted the scanners as a less intrusive way to search people suspected of carrying drugs, weapons or other contraband, which they said will increase safety, and “the dignity of those being searched.”
Police in Toronto, and Ontario more generally, have a history of overusing strip searches, also known as “Level 3” searches, which involve the “removal of some or all of a person’s clothing, including the undergarments” and an inspection of the person’s body by police officers. Several high profile incidents involving unnecessary strip searches have prompted calls for reform on the issue.
Currently, Toronto police officers conduct an average of around 55 strip searches every day.
Abby Deshman, Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that while some people might find a body scan less invasive than a traditional strip search, the scans do represent a “significant privacy invasion”.
“Full body scanners [produce] detailed images of a person’s naked body, including their internal cavities — it’s a very sensitive picture,” Deshman told VICE News in a phone call, noting that people in custody are essentially being given a choice between two highly-invasive search techniques.
The scanners are being rolled out as an initiative of the Transformational Task Force , a wide-ranging effort to make Toronto’s police force “more trusted, transparent and accountable” through the modernization of police practices, according to the TPS.
Before rolling out the scanners, TPS consulted with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, among others to assess the scanners’ impact on privacy and human rights.
The TPS says that the use of the scanners will not mean an end to strip searches.
Materials provided by the TPS state that people in custody can refuse a body scan, but will be subject to a physical search instead. According to the materials, the scanners will not be used on underage detainees for the duration of the pilot study, but the language used seems to leave the door open to minors undergoing scans if and when the technology is adopted across all of Toronto.
Images of people’s bodies generated by the scans will be kept for 30 days before being deleted, except in cases where the images need to be kept as evidence to support criminal charges.
Similar body scanning technology has been rolled out in prisons in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in recent years. Some correctional officers say the technology is challenging to use, since they are not properly trained to interpret the X-ray images produced by the scanners.
Toronto is something of a proving ground for body scanning technologies used by law enforcement: the scanners now used in all Ontario prisons were first tested as part of a six-month pilot project at the Toronto South Detention Center.
Deshman said that the use of full body scanners in prisons and jails has not reduced the number of strip searches conducted in those facilities, something she finds concerning.
“In a corrections context, [body scanners] have not replaced strip searches,” she said.
“We would definitely want to see a reduction in the use of strip searches” in facilities equipped with scanners in order to justify their use, she said.
Photo by Toronto Police Service.