A Canadian alliance of police, academics, corporations and entrepreneurs is promoting a controversial pre-crime policing model, with key players in the movement poised to gain financially from the policies they’re advocating for.
The first concerns about conflicts of interest related to the so-called "Hub model" were raised in 2016 by an RCMP commander who resigned from an organization that was established to promote it.
Now a VICE News investigation has outlined potential conflicts surrounding the people and organizations encouraging communities to adopt the Hub model — conflicts that experts in ethics and public policy say suggest a lack of accountability in the burgeoning field.
By many accounts, the Hub model can revolutionize policing. It partners police officers with health and social workers to identify people who may be “at risk” of committing a crime or harming themselves — and swooping in to intervene before something happens.
These "pre-crime" interventions can often be a simple chat, but many involve minors, and some end in forced hospitalization or arrest. The Hub model is now in use in more than 100 cities across Canada.
It’s been largely praised, touted as a solution to everything from domestic violence to truancy, promising to save money while constraining “frequent flyers” who use emergency services more than others. Ongoing gun violence in Toronto — including a recent mass shooting that left three dead, including the shooter, and 13 others wounded — also prompted a former deputy police chief to point to the Hub model, and its "customized, non-judicial solutions for people at high-risk to be a victim of crime and/or a criminal", as an alternative.
It has also raised concerns from some experts who see the danger of privacy infringement and discrimination in an approach that turns social workers into defacto extensions of the police.
“As soon as you’re identified [as at-risk], it changes how people interact with you,” said Valerie Steeves, a University of Ottawa criminologist. “At that point, you become the problem: ‘we need to watch you, all the time, so we can fix you.’”
Not much scrutiny, however, has been placed on the people who are pushing the model, or how it has spread across Canada.
The story of the Hub model is largely defined by two organizations: the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance (CSKA), a non-profit funded by the government of Saskatchewan to advance the practice of the model in Canada; and the Global Network for Community Safety (GNCS), a private for-profit company that, among other services, helps police set up the Hub model in any community.
By combing through documents, and consulting experts, VICE News has found that several potential conflicts of interest exist between the two organizations. They range from the president of the for-profit company also acting as the editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal that advocates for the Hub model, to one of CSKA’s key funders, a telecommunications company, also pitching projects to the government that complement the Hub approach. An academic researcher whose work has legitimized the model is also a paid consultant with GNCS to provide services related to the policies his research supports, and an active-duty police chief is on the CSKA board, putting him in a potentially conflicting position of both public responsibility and private advocacy.
The first concerns about conflicts of interest related to the CSKA were raised in 2016, when RCMP commander Brenda Butterworth-Carr resigned as a director of the non-profit, citing conflict of interest concerns. VICE News obtained a copy of her resignation letter.
“My participation [in the CSKA] could be construed as an actual or apparent conflict of interest for several reasons,” she wrote, pointing to the editorial policy of a CSKA-published academic journal as one potential conflict.
Butterworth-Carr wrote that articles published in the journal may contain advocacy, which “would conflict with my obligation as a member of the RCMP to remain objective and neutral,” and added that “any information that advocates for changes to government policies would violate my obligation not to lobby or become politically active.”
The editor of the CSKA journal, Norman Taylor, is also president of GNCS, the private company that police in several Ontario cities have hired to implement the Hub model. In his bio, Taylor states that he is a senior advisor to the Deputy Ministers of Justice in both Saskatchewan and Ontario.
In his writings for the government-funded journal, Taylor has argued that social service providers should discard long-standing conventions around patient privacy and share people’s information more freely, a concept that is fundamental to the Hub model.
(Privacy laws prevent health and social workers from sharing sensitive information about their clients with police without consent, except in situations where a person is deemed to be at a high risk of harm. It’s this loophole that Hubs use to work around privacy laws.)
“We must realign the system,” Taylor wrote in the first issue of the Journal in 2016, declaring that “troubled” people’s information “must be shared” between agencies.
"We must realign the system."
He told VICE News in an email that no conflict of interest exists between his roles at the journal and GNCS, and denies that he promotes the Hub model in any way.
Rather, he says that GNCS and other organizations “have merely responded to [...] growing needs for technical guidance” in regards to the Hub model and that he serves as editor of the journal in a “personal capacity.”
Chris Macdonald, a professor of ethics and critical thinking at Ryerson University, says that while the existence of a conflict of interest isn’t necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, Taylor’s various roles do represent a “worrisome conflict.”
“The worry is that, for the people reading the [journal’s] research, [Taylor] has a stake in what gets published,” Macdonald told VICE News in a phone call.
“No one, including [Taylor], can tell what effect his financial interests will have on his editorial decision making.”
Dr. Chad Nilson, an academic researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who has produced the bulk of the research that has effectively legitimized the Hub model in Canada, has also written about Hubs in the pages of CSKA’s journal.
Although some of Nilson’s writings indicate that he is affiliated with Taylor’s private consultancy, GNCS, readers wouldn’t necessarily know that he is also a partner in GNCS. Nilson’s research papers in the journal include a conflict of interest disclosure that says he maintains a “business relationship” with journal editor Taylor, but doesn’t disclose that the two are partners in GNCS.
Nilson told VICE News in an email that he “is not aware of any conflicts of interest” surrounding his roles and did not answer questions about his work for GNCS and CSKA.
Macdonald believes that there is a conflict of interest in Nilson’s situation.
“The disclosure [in the journal] covers the editor’s conflict of interest — editors have to be careful when friends or colleagues submit papers. But none of [the disclosure] covers the private financial gain that comes from [Nilson’s] consulting business.”
Macdonald says that pointing out the conflict isn’t an accusation, but rather draws needed attention to the situation.
“The worry is that if [Nilson] found evidence that [the Hub model] isn’t a good strategy, he would be at least unconsciously motivated to bury those results.”
Marc-André Gagnon, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, agrees, saying that in his view there is “absolutely” a conflict of interest surrounding Nilson’s roles as an academic researcher and as a for-hire consultant with GNCS. He noted that pressure on academics to seek out external funding for their work has never been higher, a situation that he called a “structural problem” in academia.
“We have to look at the rules that are in place to manage these conflicts of interest,” Gagnon told VICE News in a phone call. He explained that in a relatively new area of study like the Hub model of policing, rules surrounding conflicts of interest may not be well-developed.
“Are there [effective] rules, or is it the Wild West, where anything goes? If there are no rules, that’s a big red flag,” he said.
Rules regarding potential conflicts of interest published by the University of Saskatchewan state that if a university employee enters into a “consulting arrangement” with an entity that has “business relations with the University,” it’s a conflict of interest.
"Are there [effective] rules, or is it the Wild West, where anything goes? If there are no rules, that’s a big red flag."
Cal Corley, CEO of the CSKA, told VICE News in an email that his organization hired Nilson to produce the research that supports a project CSKA and the Motorola corporation are pitching to government, as well as another Hub-related research project.
In addition, the vice-president of research of USask, Karen Chad, sits on the CSKA board, creating a convoluted relationship between the two organizations that incorporates elements of academic research, advocacy through the CSKA Journal, and business. (USask has also faced criticism for its approach to situations of conflict of interest related to the University.)
In her resignation letter, Butterworth-Carr also pointed to a partnership between CSKA and Motorola that conflicted with her duties as a public servant. She wrote that the arrangement conflicted with her obligation to not appear to promote any outside organization as an RCMP officer.
Motorola has a close relationship with the CSKA: the CSKA received $105,752 from the Motorola Solutions Foundation in 2016 and $85,573 in 2017, and the president of Motorola Solutions Canada, George Krausz, sits on CSKA’s board of directors. According to his bio, Krausz oversees government sales for Canada, which includes selling Motorola equipment to provinces and cities.
Motorola has partnered with the CSKA, Defence Research and Development Canada, the RCMP, and the University of Saskatchewan to pitch a high-tech communications platform to government. Its purpose is to equip remote communities with streaming-video and communications equipment to allow residents to speak with social service providers, rather than have to travel to the nearest city.
Due to Motorola’s involvement in the research phase of the project, and the Motorola Solutions Foundation’s funding of the CSKA, the company could be considered to be in a favourable position to win government contracts related to the building of the platform.
Gagnon says that there are conflict of interest concerns whenever a major corporation partners with an organization implicated in the shaping of public policy.
Corporate sponsorship of non-profit organizations and academics “is a huge problem,” he says, noting that the power and resources of major corporations inevitably influence the decisions taken by their partners.
Another director of the CSKA, Rick Bourassa, is chief of police for the city of Moose Jaw, Sask. and also the Executive Treasurer of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police (SACP), which donated $41,667 to CSKA in 2016 and $50,000 in 2017. CSKA’s financial statements say that Bourassa “has the ability to exercise significant influence over the strategic policies of each of these organizations.”
A spokesperson for Bourassa told VICE News that he has not received any compensation from the CSKA or GNCS and that in his role at CSKA, he “excuses the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police [SACP] from any discussions that have financial implications for the SACP or police services.”
Some cities have experienced a drop in 911 calls after implementation, but Hubs’ impact on crime rates is less clear: The oldest Hub in Canada, in the city of Prince Albert, Sask., was credited with a reduction in some types of crime after it was introduced, but crime rates have since risen.
Those who typically aren’t heard from are the people on the receiving end of Hub interventions. More than 9,500 people have experienced Hub interventions across Canada since 2011; one of the few criticisms of the Hub model coming from the practitioner community is that little work has been done to evaluate these people’s experiences.
In an attempt to address these concerns, the Barrie Police Service in Ontario hired GNCS to survey 11 people who had been targeted by that city’s Hub to gauge their experiences of intervention.
"I was shocked," said one, about police arriving at her door unannounced to tell her she had a mental health problem. Another said that their intervention ended with them going to jail. Others explained that they appreciated their intervention, though some Hub evaluators admit their research is biased to include more positive experiences.
Asked how their intervention made them feel about police and health workers, one unidentified person said simply: "[It] made me hate them more."
Steeves, the criminologist, says that the Hub model provides a “false hope” that if authorities knew everything about everyone, they could solve every problem — an approach that she says can perpetuate discrimination.
“There are discriminatory patterns often built into this kind of analysis,” she says. “Marginalized people are going to be far more subject to this type of scrutiny than anyone else.”
Cover image of a shooting on Danforth Avenue, in Toronto, that left three people dead and 13 others injured. Photo by Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press