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HomeWorld NewsCanada newsHalifax police agrees withholding information was wrong, settles legal case with CBC

Halifax police agrees withholding information was wrong, settles legal case with CBC

Police and Public Trust, a CBC News Atlantic investigative unit project, scrutinizes the largely off-limits police complaint and discipline systems across the region. Journalists are using access to information laws, and in some cases court challenges, to obtain discipline records and data.

Halifax Regional Police has acknowledged it should not have withheld information about its internal discipline decisions from the CBC, according to an agreement approved recently by a Nova Scotia judge.

CBC went to court last year to get information about internal discipline at the department, in an effort to better inform the public during a time of close scrutiny of police conduct.

In the agreement between HRP and CBC, approved July 27 by a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice, the department admitted it did not adequately review the records when it refused to release them last year following a freedom-of-information request.

It also acknowledged it has a duty to make “every reasonable effort” to help a person requesting information, but that it took two reviews and a court process for the department to fulfil that obligation.

In Halifax, police have been criticized in cases such as the death in custody of Corey Rogers, a traffic stop where Kayla Borden alleged she was racially profiled, and the handling of Carrie Low’s rape case. 

In each of these high-profile cases, an internal discipline decision eventually became public — but in the vast majority of other cases, the internal decision is not known.

Mount Saint Vincent University professor and activist El Jones said she sees problems with the Nova Scotian and Canadian access-to-information system.

“Access to records, unless there’s a really compelling reason for us not to have them, should not be something that’s a struggle,” she said.

A Black woman with long hair sits on a bench amid flowers.
El Jones is a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and wrote a report for Halifax on defining defunding the police. (Sinisa Jolic)

Jones chaired the committee that delivered a report defining defunding the police to the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners. She said discipline records can help the public understand what kind of discipline issues are coming up and determine whether there are any patterns.

“We can’t really get a full picture if we don’t have access to these kind of records,” she said, referencing the movement to re-examine the role of police. 

“How are we supposed to even begin to understand where reforms need to be made — or where resources need to be put, if that’s what you want to do — if we don’t really have a good picture of where the failures are? 

“I think some of that is captured in these kind of records.”

Police and public trust

CBC’s Atlantic investigative unit wanted to see what kind of complaints police were receiving from the public and how departments handled them. In each Atlantic province, journalists filed freedom-of-information requests as part of a project called Police and Public Trust.

In Nova Scotia, CBC News used access-to-information laws to ask for 11 years’ worth of discipline decisions from every municipal police department in the province.

Every force provided the records, except for Halifax, which in July 2022 declined to release any information at all. 

As is the right of access-to-information applicants, CBC appealed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. 

But before a judge had a chance to hear the case, a lawyer representing the police and city agreed to a negotiated settlement with CBC. Over the course of a year, the police gradually released more and more information. Mobile users: View the document
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The CBC felt early versions of the released information were too heavily redacted to understand some cases, as locations, pronouns and even inanimate objects were redacted. Both CBC and HRP agreed the names of the complainants and the officers could be redacted to protect their privacy. 

CBC continued to press until it believed the police and city’s obligations had been sufficiently met and enough information had been revealed. When that happened, both parties agreed to a consent order dismissing the case. 

With the signing of that agreement, the legal case between the public broadcaster and the municipal police is over. The Halifax police agreed to pay $1,500 in costs to CBC.

The department declined to do an interview after the case ended, but acting public information officer Melissa MacInnis provided a statement. 

“HRP recognizes and acknowledges that there is an increasing expectation of access to information related to policing, and we have a role to play in reviewing our processes as well as how we have done things historically,” she wrote.

“At the same time, our resourcing and systems associated with access to information have not kept up. We are looking internally on how we can support this area better using our current resources as well as what additional supports may help.”

The statement did not say why HRP failed to adequately review the records and decided to withhold them in the first place. 

Information accessed

CBC obtained written decisions from more than 120 Halifax files, most of which were from complaints dealt with between approximately 2019 and 2021. All the complaints were investigated and police determined most were unsubstantiated. 

In many cases, senior officers who investigated the complaints concluded there was no evidence or not enough evidence to support the allegations. 

In an interview, CBC asked Nova Scotia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Tricia Ralph about the importance of the access-to-information system and the difficulty of going to court to get documents disclosed. 

Ralph said although Nova Scotians need to receive information about their public bodies, going to court may be out of reach for many.

A woman with long brown hair and a yellow blazer sits at her desk.
Tricia Ralph is the information and privacy commissioner for Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC)

“It turns on the applicant to have to get the resources and the time and the money it takes and take on their provincial government or some municipal government and go to court and fight them for access to the records,” Ralph said. 

“I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s a lot more difficult for the average Nova Scotian to do that than it is for a major government to do that.”

Ralph said she has been asking for updated legislation to strengthen access-to-information laws in Nova Scotia. The current legislation has not been updated since 1993. 

Ralph said her office, and all offices that are subject to access-to-information legislation, are struggling to deal with the amount of work to be done, and should be better resourced.

“Oftentimes when someone is making a request for information it’s different than when the laws were drafted. It’s not, you know, go into someone’s desk and pull a couple of notes and grab these few papers. Sometimes it’s thousands and thousands of pages of emails and text messages,” she said. 

Ralph said sometimes organizations may take the view that access requests are unimportant and other work should take priority over them. 

“But it’s important to remember that we as a society have decided that it is important, and it is important for Nova Scotians and Canadians to know what their elected officials are doing and that is formalized in the law. And it’s important for us to continue to respect those laws and follow them,” she said. 

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