Stop automatically disclosing suicide attempts, privacy czar tells cops

April 14, 2014 –  Global News

Stop sharing information on individuals’ suicide attempts with other police forces unless the people in question pose a danger to others, Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner is telling police.

Ann Cavoukian’s report, due out Monday morning and obtained by Global News, was sparked by stories of multiple Canadians being refused entry to the United States because U.S. border officials found information on their previous suicide attempts or threats of suicide – some from years earlier – and decided that made them unfit to enter the country.

“Understandably,” Cavoukian writes, “the individuals involved were shocked that U.S. border officials were able to gain access to information about their mental health. Their stories … raised serious privacy issues regarding the sharing of one’s sensitive health information. On learning of these events, including hearing of the pain and embarrassment caused by the denials of entry, I decided to conduct an investigation to determine exactly how and why this was happening.

“I kept wondering – how could this be happening in my jurisdiction, where personal health information is so strongly protected?”

The report explores the kind of information police add to the Canadian Police Information Centre, why, and what happens to that information once it enters the database.

It found that each police force has its own rules when it comes to sharing the personal info of someone who tries to kill him- or herself: While several Ontario police forces do so at their own discretion, Toronto police automatically upload all suicide threats or attempts to the database, which is shared with multiple other forces – including those in the U.S.

That practice, Cavoukian writes, needs to cease “immediately.”

Police should only disclose a person’s threat or attempt at suicide to the info-sharing database, Cavoukian writes, if:

  • “The suicide attempt involved the threat of serious violence or harm, or the actual use of serious violence or harm, directed at other individuals;
  • The suicide attempt could reasonably be considered to be an intentional provocation of a lethal response by the police;
  • The individual involved had a history of serious violence or harm to others; or
  • The suicide attempt occurred while the individual was in police custody.”

Cavoukian also wants police to give the people in question a chance to bring forward their own health information regarding whether their suicide attempts should be disclosed.

She wants police to remove all existing suicide-attempt entries in the database that don’t meet these criteria by April 16 of next year.

The stories Cavoukian used as examples included Ellen Richardson, Lois Kamenitz and two unnamed Ontario residents, one a lawyer.

Ellen Richardson was on her way to a Caribbean cruise when she was stopped by a border agent at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The agent asked her about a 2012 suicide attempt and told her that if she wanted to get into the U.S., she’d need clearance from Homeland Security-approved doctors. She couldn’t get the clearance in time, lost her holiday and the cost of her ticket.

“I was appalled to learn that, in the case of Ellen Richardson, the U.S. border official would not accept Ms. Richardson’s offer to contact her treating psychiatrist to discuss Ms. Richardson’s mental health before denying her entry to the U.S. on the basis of a previous suicide attempt,” Cavoukian writes. “This struck me as the height of absurdity.”

Over the course of her investigation, Cavoukian says, she took the “unprecedented step” of requesting – and obtaining – a sworn affidavit from Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews that the ministry was not disclosing anyone’s personal health information to U.S. officials.

Cavoukian underscored the sensitivity of personal mental health information, especially given existing stigmas regarding mental illness. It’s also possible police disclosing the information don’t know the individual’s whole story, or anything that happened – in terms of treatment, for example – following police involvement

“There is no support for an indiscriminate disclosure-by- default policy, as it relates to suicide attempts,” she writes, adding that the effects could be “devastating” for those involved. “There was also a clear consensus [from mental-health professionals] on the need to consider the unique circumstances of each individual case and the need to recognize that the information collected by the police may not be accurate, up to date, or complete.”

READ: Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian’s report

Indiscriminate Disclosure: Ontario Privacy Commissioner report on police suicide disclosure

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