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Thursday, February 03, 2005

NOW Toronto Magazine: Cops privacy pinch, Feb 3 - 9, 2005 

NOW Toronto has long traded on it's virulent pseudo-rebel stance using passionately purple prose to paint every authority figure it covers as the prime suspect in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy. In this story "Force makes bold bid to keep records on the innocent" they've gone over some limit in my brain where I have to speak up. There's so much wrong with this story I barley know where to begin.

I have to admit I read NOW regularly to see the collection of journalistic faux-pas they commit each week. I don't disrespect NOW's business sense. It's done nothing but grow in recent years but as a source of objective, unbiased reporting it's an abysmal failure. What I find both fascinating and galling is the editorial hypocrisy of lambasting authorities and corporations for their moral failures while the ratio of ads to editorial copy skyrockets.

Publications and journalists have to keep their own ethical noses clean if they are to have any moral validity. Biased writing is not reporting in the literal sense of the word and it's not journalism. That's not to say that journalists or publications for that matter shouldn't have opinions. That's what columns and editorials are for - but, if there's a criticism to be made in a news story, the writer should let an authoritative (and, if possible, reasonably objective) source to do it. Story elements need to be supported by actual fact and they need to be clear.

I read the paragraph about Ontario Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian's deputation three times before deciding Smith was saying she was for the cops keeping "non-conviction dispositions" - records of investigations where charges were not laid, thrown out of court or dropped - something Smith equates with innocence.

"Enter Ontario's privacy commissioner, Anne Cavoukian, who gave a deputation on a policy that would see the force keep records of "non-conviction dispositions"

The next paragraph has her against the cops keeping these records. I think.

"The commissioner expressed discomfort with the idea of differentiating between charges. She believes that people upon release assume their records are destroyed. "Such changes would be contrary to... the presumption of innocence," she stated."

Maybe Smith got confused by his own writing because shortly thereafter he takes off on a completely unsupported and unattributed tangent that seems to have the Toronto police emulating their American heroes by investigating people for thought crime.

"It's true that your fingerprints and photograph reveal little about you as a person. But if they're useful in identifying you if you've committed a crime, they could also be useful in linking you to perfectly legal but currently unpopular political activity – something to keep in mind with increasingly dubious arrests south of the border."

Next, and this is the most incredible part, Smith has the police acting outside the law and Case Ootes endorsing it.

"Case Ootes defended extra-legal investigations, citing the grey area of American anti-terrorism work. He took a similar position last week."

Smith has Ootes defending investigations which, according to dictionary.com, are "not permitted or governed by law" as if they happen all the time. Apparently the Toronto cops are out jacking up innocent civilians willy-nilly, the former deputy mayor is OK-ing it and Smith is reporting on some dull old board meeting. Where's your news sense Mike? Get out there and dig up the big story for us.

For the detail freaks among us (and by that I mean me) the reference to "last week" is entirely unacceptable. The way it's written Ootes could have made that statement anytime last week and he could have been anywhere doing anything when he said it. He could have said it in his sleep "last week." We have no way of knowing.

A simple change like 'at the board meeting' would have cleared that up. If Smith owns a copy of the Canadian Press stylebook, which is the standard reference for this sort of thing, a quick check of page 287 would have helped him avoid the problem. I know it seems like a small thing but news is not supposed to be confusing.

What Smith misses entirely is these records are proof that the subjects in question didn't do anything they could get convicted for. Many investigations don't end up with someone being charged (or the charges being dropped) because the allegations can't be proven in court which is not the same as saying they didn't do it.

Also if the cops violate my rights during an investigation or simply botch an investigation in a case where I'm the victim I want that record to be available if I choose to complain about it. To my mind, the mandated destruction of information is much more ominous.

The Toronto Police Service (TPS) has 5,000 officers according to the Police Services Board media spokesperson. In my opinion, if you put a group of 5,000 egg inspectors on the streets you're going to have some problems. The fact that there are problems shouldn't take away from the efforts of the vast majority of those 5,000 officers to keep the peace or make them all out to be fascist cowboys.

I also don't envy the task of the public servants who have to sit between the cops and the community they serve. Both them and the police have a difficult enough task as it is. They don't need to be covered in muck that's not even of their own making.


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