Three of Canada’s biggest cities are going all in on their adoption of a controversial policing model that partners cops with doctors, teachers, social workers and others to monitor residents for signs of “risk” and to stage interventions before crime or harm occurs.
Toronto, Edmonton, and Ottawa are all in the process of expanding or implementing the “Hub” model of policing across their municipalities. Previously, pilot projects of the model in major cities had only been rolled out in select neighborhoods. More than 100 Hubs (also known as Situation Tables) are currently active across Canada, but Ottawa, with a population of nearly 1 million, is the first major city to fully adopt the model.
Many social services professionals believe the Hub approach is useful for helping vulnerable people. But privacy experts have criticized the model because it requires police and partners to share people’s sensitive personal information, often without consent, to decide if a person needs an intervention. Experts in evidence-based policing have pointed out that no hard evidence exists to show Hubs are effective at preventing crime or victimization. Advocates fighting against anti-Black racism and for other marginalized groups are concerned that Hubs encourage over-policing.
Leila Moumouni–Tchouassi, co-founder of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition (OBDC), worries that encouraging the public to report non-criminal behavior will disproportionately impact communities of colour.
“The program allows for us to be labeled dangerous” without committing dangerous acts, Moumouni said. “As Black folks, we are most often approached first criminally. We cannot trust that this program facilitated under the criminal justice system would portray us any different.”
The Hub model is a collaboration between police and social services to address crime and “social disorder” before they happen. Hub members meet regularly to discuss people they believe are at risk of criminality or harm. Members may ask their clients (for example, a social work client) if they consent to be assessed by the Hub, but if a member believes that someone is heading toward crisis, they can be referred without consent. When Hub members collectively agree a person is at high risk, information is shared among agencies and an intervention deployed. Hub interventions are described by proponents as friendly ‘door knock’ visits from police and their partners, but in at least two Ontario cities, Barrie and Waterloo, interventions have resulted in people being jailed or forcibly hospitalized.
In February, a VICE investigation found that at least two provinces use a Risk-driven Tracking Database (RTD) to gather sensitive personal information about people assessed by Hubs. That investigation showed that minors are frequently targeted by Hubs and that risk factors used to justify intervention including living in a “negative neighborhood” or exhibiting “negative behavior,” defined as obnoxious or disruptive behavior.
In Toronto, the number of people assessed by the city’s four existing Hubs (called FOCUS Tables) jumped dramatically in 2018. According to the United Way, 426 individuals and 168 families were assessed in the first nine months of 2018, a 68 percent increase over the same period in 2017. In total, 537 people or families were subject to FOCUS interventions in 2018.
Documents from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) obtained by VICE through an Access to Information request show that Ottawa’s version of the Hub (called MERIT, for Multiagency Early Risk Intervention Tables) allows any “concerned person” from a MERIT partner agency to refer a person or family to police, including for non-criminal “problematic behavior” or suspected mental health issues. Through MERIT, students at Ottawa schools who repeatedly skip school can be labeled as being at “acutely elevated risk,” a designation that allows MERIT partners to share students’ personal information and deploy interventions without consent.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that the Hub model “should not be operating” without solid evidence that the model works to save lives and prevent crime.
“For a process that’s deeply invasive, potentially stigmatizing, and that causes ripple effects across many aspects of vulnerable people’s lives, [we need] to be sure that these programs do more good than harm,” McPhail said. “The risk to individuals caught up in [Hubs] is profound.”
The Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition believes that MERIT and the database create “essentially a city-wide neighborhood watch” that encourages over-policing.
“Racialized youth will be greatly impacted because many of us come from unstable community environments,” OBDC cofounder Alicia Marie LeJour said in a statement. “If I admit myself to hospital for having an episode, [it] could be the thing that makes me ‘at risk’.”
How does the Hub model work?
MERIT, Ottawa’s unique version of the Hub model, partners Ottawa Police Service with hospitals, school boards, bylaw officers, Children’s Aid Societies and others to share information about residents believed to be at risk of harm or criminality. MERIT was launched in one Ottawa neighborhood in 2016 before being adopted citywide in 2019.
MERIT is based in an Ottawa police station where an Ottawa Police Service employee is the sole point of contact. A MERIT referral form obtained by VICE shows that any “concerned person” from a partner agency can refer someone to MERIT for investigation.
“When a person, family or community is at risk, MERIT receives a referral. Referrals can come from a concerned person, social worker, community agency, school, police or mental health service,” reads the form. Once a referral is received, agencies collectively evaluate the individual or family’s situation to decide if it meets the threshold of “acutely elevated risk.” If so, an intervention can be deployed with or without consent.
MERIT encourages the public to report non-criminal “antisocial or problematic behavior” — defined as “aggressive or disruptive behavior with little or no consideration for others” — to police. “If someone you know is behaving in an antisocial or problematic way in the community and there are noticeable changes in their behaviour, you may wish to contact a community police officer,” reads the MERIT website.
OPS Constable Amy Gagnon said in an email that public reports to MERIT are “dealt with according to the information received and the situation that presents itself to officers on scene.” Gagnon also noted that if police believe a person is a danger to themselves they can be apprehended under Ontario’s Mental Health Act and hospitalized.
McPhail is concerned that MERIT has created a “very low threshold for subjecting someone to investigation by police.”
“It’s one thing to say ‘Report crime to police,’ but it’s another to say ‘Call the police if someone has little consideration for others’,” McPhail said in a phone call.
MERIT’s 2018 annual report shows that “antisocial/problematic behavior (non-criminal)” was the top risk factor for people assessed by MERIT that year, followed by mental health concerns and victimization. That year, when the program was only active in one neighborhood, 29 individuals and 20 families were referred to MERIT and 85 percent of those assessments met the threshold of “acutely elevated risk” for intervention. Ottawa police participated in 90.5 percent of assessments in 2018. MERIT does not track race-based data.
Ottawa police refused to provide specific examples of what is considered “problematic” behavior beyond saying that “violence [or] excessive or concerning social media use” could be considered a problem. Asked why these examples were grouped together since violence against people or property is a criminal act while social media use is not, police would not elaborate.
McPhail said that police conflating violence with social media use is “deeply problematic” because there are no guidelines for social media monitoring by authorities.
Faduma Wais of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition said that ignorance of a community’s cultural practices could easily lead to people being reported to police for “problematic” behaviour.
“We already know as a community there are many things that we do that may be deemed suspicious and problematic to those who do not understand [them],” said Wais. “I was once given a bad review after renting an Airbnb because we smoked shisha on the back porch after the owner approved that we could smoke in the unit. I still remember the title of the review as BEWARE!”
Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism
Toronto’s FOCUS Tables and Ottawa’s MERIT program have both received federal funds under a national security initiative that aims to intervene with people who may be on the cusp of radicalization. This federal funding was the catalyst for citywide expansion of both FOCUS and MERIT. In 2018, MERIT received five referrals relating to preventing and countering violent extremism.
McPhail said authorities need to be “cautious” about combining national security programs with Hubs, which are “supposed to be about keeping people, especially young people, out of the hands of police.”
“If coming to the attention of a Hub [results in] young people being put on the radar of national security agencies, they will be subject to a whole new range of information gathering and sharing,” said McPhail. “What are the criteria for identifying a potential [national security] threat? Are those assessments being monitored to be sure they are being done fairly? We need to know.”
Truant students labeled ‘acutely elevated risk’
In Ontario, school principals are already required to report habitually truant or late students to a Children’s Aid Society. But through MERIT, students of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) who regularly skip can now be labeled as being at “acutely elevated risk [AER]” of criminality or harm, opening the door to intervention.
Hub guidelines state a person typically needs to exhibit two or more “risk factors” in order to be referred to a Hub. But notes from a March 2018 meeting between Ottawa police and representatives from the Ottawa-Carleton, Lakehead and Ottawa Catholic school boards show participants suggesting to reduce the standard to a single risk factor: truancy.
(Consent is required for MERIT agencies to make a Hub referral unless a person has been declared at risk. In consensual cases, young people over 16 can give consent for a Hub referral, while younger kids must get parental approval.)
Ottawa police confirmed in an email that students attending OCDSB and OCSB schools can be labeled acutely elevated risk for skipping school alone.
Ikram Hamoud of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition pointed out that being absent from school isn’t a reliable indicator of whether or not a student is at a high risk of harm. “When it comes to truancy, socio-economic factors can make it more of a priority for [family members] to work or take care of smaller siblings than attend school,” Hamoud said. “It is problematic to assume someone’s absence is deviant rather than primal.”
The OCDSB refused to say how many students the Board has referred to MERIT and declined to answer questions.
McPhail said that by changing how they define “acutely elevated risk,” Hub agencies can quickly “change a young person’s life from a kid who misses school to someone who is at such risk that their life will be picked apart by professionals.”
‘Extension of police control’
Proponents claim that the Hub model saves lives and stops crime before it happens, but experts say little evidence exists to prove the Hub model reduces crime or victimization.
Dr. Laura Huey, a criminologist at Western University and director of the Canadian Society for Evidence-Based Policing, is a vocal critic of Hubs. In 2018 Huey decried the wide adoption of the model across Canada citing a lack of evidence showing it is effective, and called out then-attorney general of Ontario Yasir Naqvi for referring to Hubs as a “best practice” without evidence to back up the claim.
“The evidence base [supporting the Hub model] is virtually non-existent,” Huey wrote at the time. She pointed out that in the years since the first Hub launched in Saskatchewan in 2010, “there has not been one single, independent, peer-reviewed evaluation of any version of a Canadian Hub published in a credible research journal.” Huey noted that much of the research on Hubs “has been generated by consultants who also happen to promote this "product" and their services,” a topic explored in a 2018 VICE investigation that found conflicts of interest associated with prominent advocates of the Hub model. (Huey declined an interview request for this story.)
Peer-reviewed research published in the journal of Policing and Society in January by Carrie Sanders, a criminologist at WIlfrid Laurier University, concluded that the Hub model represents an “extension of police control” in society and that it can “evade democratic accountability” without proper oversight.
Despite no solid evidence that the Hub model works, it has been widely adopted across Canada: in Ontario more than 60 Hubs are active in the province. Last summer Ontario passed the Safer Ontario Act, which requires all municipalities in the province to develop a “community safety and well-being” plan, enshrining the unproven principles of the Hub model in law.