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The Toronto Police Videotaped Strip-Search Chambers During the G20

A new, independent documentary has revealed that the Toronto Police were running video surveillance on the strip-search chambers they built for a temporary detention center during the G20. We spoke with detainees and the Ontario Privacy Commissioner...
August 7, 2014, 4:24pm

Screengrab of G20 detention center surveillance footage, obtained by the filmmakers of What World Do You Live In?

The past couple of weeks have been chock-full of bad press for the Toronto Police (TPS). First there was the independent report conducted by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci that suggested, in the wake of Sammy Yatim’s killing, that Toronto cops start wearing cameras and beefing up their TASER supply in an effort to curb the officers' temptation to fire their guns at “people in crisis.”

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Then, shortly after, news broke that police chief Bill Blair's contract would not be renewed by the police services board. Many believe that the board refused to renew Blair's contract due to two major scandals: his inconclusive surveillance of the city’s crack smoking mayor, and TPS’s handling of the G20 protests in Toronto. Blair spun the G20 as best as he could, given that he was personally open to discussing it in public (after, of course, refusing to provide an apology) and willing to pursue disciplinary action against his most aggressive officers. But the scars of the TPS’s illegal, mass arrests have not fully healed.

As revealed by a new, independent documentary called What World Do You Live In?—and as first reported by sometime-VICE Canada contributor Rachel Browne for Maclean’s in late July—surveillance footage of the temporary detention centre erected by the Toronto Police to house the G20 detainees “confirms security cameras were filming the rooms where people were strip-searched.”

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An exclusive clip given to VICE by the director of What World Do You Live In?, Rebecca Garrett, and its producer, Doug Johnson Hatlem (a well-known street preacher and homeless advocate), provides a quick glimpse of what it was like in the detention center. This footage was obtained by a Freedom of Information request, and because of the particulars of the request, the filmmakers only have surveillance footage that shows Gabriel Jacobs—the paraplegic man who crosses the frame in an electric wheelchair.

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Jacobs settled a human-rights-abuse claim with the Toronto Police in late 2012, after he was left unattended on the floor of the detention center for so long that he defecated on himself.

As Jacobs crosses through the video footage, no strip searches are being conducted.

If you watch the footage closely, however, on the right, in a cage full of detainees (which has been partially censored to protect the prisoners’ identities), you can see a peace sign forged out of Styrofoam juice cups and shoved into the holes of the chain-link fence. Closer to the center, you can see large plywood cells without roofs. The camera is clearly peering into them. That is where, according to several G20 detainees, the strip searches were conducted.

I spoke with Kate Bullock, a Toronto woman who was arrested, detained for 16 hours, and released without charges. Her boyfriend, Tommy, proposed to her during the G20 protests, and they are happily married today. Tommy was also arrested and detained during the protests.

Bullock was partially strip-searched in one of those plywood boxes, she told me. “I didn’t have a complete strip search. I did have my bra removed, and then they patted me down pretty extensively. There were a number of women who were strip-searched in there, who said it was a completely invasive and horrible experience. But I was not completely strip-searched…”

While Bullock is furious that the process may have been videotaped, she recognizes the potential legal benefits of having the officers' abuses on film.

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“On the silver lining, at least there’s proof that horrible things happened… but it was incredibly invasive, and knowing women who were naked in that situation, who were told to pose in awkward ways so that [police] could get a better view of things… It was already invasive enough to have to form a human wall so that the male officers couldn’t watch us go to the bathroom, let alone knowing that they recorded all of that, and that they recorded women being strip-searched, is just further proof that there’s no sense in obeying the law, and that we can’t trust our own police officers or law enforcement to protect us.”

I also spoke with Jay Wall, a Toronto man who was arrested for “wearing a bandanna around his neck” during the G20. Wall was held for 28 hours, 20 of which were in handcuffs. He was completely strip-searched in the detention center.

Wall told me about the humiliating process.

“They didn’t seem to have any legitimate reason for why I’d been arrested, but they told me, ‘We have to strip-search you, because that’s just what we do.’ So then two officers brought me… to the strip-search room, and then once you’re in there I had to take everything off. It was one half at a time, so I was never fully naked at any time. I can’t remember if it was my top half or my bottom half first, but I had to take off my clothes, lift up my arms, bend down, show them my butt crack, under my scrotum. Everything.”

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Similar to Wall's story, Bullock was also confronted with an attitude of we just have to get this done by the officers who stripped her. She told me she was searched by two women who “both seemed kind of exasperated by the situation.”

“They weren’t particularly eager to be doing what they were doing, so they weren’t really malicious. They were just very matter-of-fact and didn’t have an explanation for why it had to be done; they just said it had to be done."

Three days before the G20 detention centre strip searches, a paralegal named Sean Salvati was taken to a room ostensibly for a strip search, but was instead summarily beaten by three officers (though police policy states that only two officers should be present for such a search) at 52 Divison. At that time, the Toronto Star polled legal experts who were “shocked” to hear that people who had been arrested illegitimately were also forcibly undressed by cops. The Star’s report indicates that strip searches are “never justified when the arrest is unlawful.” In the case of G20 detainees, the legality of the arrests is on very shaky ground.

A riot cop patrolling downtown Toronto during the G20. Photo by Carl W. Heindl

In 2010, just before the G20 began, the Ontario government secretly initiated part of the Public Works Protection Act, which was written in 1939 as a wartime measure to protect the government from evildoers. The law allowed cops to stop, search, and prevent anybody from walking on the street. When protesters resisted this warrantless search, the law made it OK to arrest them. Even with this secret law, however, these arrests are arguably a violation of the Charter, which “protects people’s right against unreasonable search and seizure.”

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The Star also noted that the Supreme Court made it quite clear that “strip searches conducted to punish or humiliate are always unreasonable and that they violate one's Charter rights when carried out without a compelling reason.” While the Toronto Police may defend the strip searches on the basis of ensuring detainees, who were kept in large cells with multiple others and did not have concealed weapons on their persons, given the alleged conduct of some of the officers who harassed female detainees it still sounds as if many of these searches could not accurately be described as "reasonable." And, in Wall’s case, at least, his arrest was determined to be unlawful by the Ontario Independent Police Review Director.

The act of video surveillance in a detention center, in and of itself, is not necessarily unlawful. I reached out to the Ontario Privacy Commissioner's office, who told me, “Police videotaping of detainees in permanent or temporary detention centers is legitimate to help ensure that they treat individuals humanely and act in compliance with the law.”

They were also careful to note that despite having video surveillance images of the strip-searching cells, “there is currently no definitive evidence available that detainees were videotaped undergoing strip searches in the Eastern Avenue detention center.” They did say, however, that “the practice of strip searches is inherently invasive of privacy,” while noting “videotaping in these circumstances may serve to ensure that police are complying with their responsibilities.”

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So, according to the police, while videotaping a strip search is not illegal, strip searching in and of itself is an invasion of privacy. There are also strict requirements as to how the footage is later handled, which was outlined to me by the Privacy Commissioner’s office:

“It is critical… that any such videotaping be subject to strict privacy requirements. For example, access to live and recorded images should only be permitted when it is absolutely necessary and, even at that, it should generally be restricted to police officers of the same sex as the detainee. In addition, blurring technology should be considered to reduce the intrusion on detainee privacy. Finally, footage should be destroyed or over-written pursuant to appropriate retention schedules. Those retention schedules must, of course, account for the need to ensure that recordings are available for the purposes of responding to access requests from affected individuals, requests for disclosure from criminal defendants or civil plaintiffs, and their use in any disciplinary proceedings.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether these regulations are being enforced, as two Toronto Police media liaison officers ignored several written requests from VICE to answer questions about strip-search surveillance.

What World Do You Live In? producer Doug Hatlem had a stern statement for the Toronto Police: “This particular little illegality brings together a trifecta of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair's most sordid legacies: the G20, regularized strip searches in violation of a direct ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court, and absolutely egregious surveillance practices. The idea that Blair was and is a champion of 'community policing' continues to be one of the greatest jokes Toronto's downtown elite ever foisted upon itself.”

Likewise, for Wall, who has been fighting the Toronto Police for four years after being illegally detained, this revelation is another stinging realization that what happened during the G20 was abusive and unacceptable.

“It was outraging to find out [that the strip searches were being recorded], though it’s no secret to any of us that the conditions in there were brutal. I didn’t think there would be cameras [in the strip-search rooms]. It’s just one more way that they’ve chipped away at our rights.”

Even though many of us have moved past caring about the G20 protests, it remains one of the most stunning examples of police-state abuse that Canada has ever seen. With another G20 taking place in Australia this year, and with the structure of the Toronto Police shifting in front of our eyes, it’s important that cops, lawyers, journalists, activists, and civilians continue to keep track of the chaos that took place in 2010, so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

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