Strip searches are ineffective, unnecessary and target racialized Canadians


With the Toronto Police Service releasing race-based data on strip searches as part of its race and identity-based data collection strategy, we can clearly see who it chooses to subject to strip excavations.

We now know that in 2020 — even though black people make up about 10% of the city’s population — one in three people who have been strip searched are black. Nearly a third of all Aboriginal people arrested were strip searched.

Not only does the strip search evoke racial and sexual trauma, it is also ineffective. It is finally time to talk about ending this oppressive police practice.

Strip searches are traumatic

Over the past 20 years, courts and oversight bodies have tried to regulate how police conduct strip searches, with the goal of reducing the total number of strip searches they conduct.

In its landmark ruling on strip searches, R.v. Golden (2001), the Supreme Court of Canada has defined strip searches as a distinct type of “personal search”, as opposed to general, pat-down or pat-and-cavity searches. The court defined strip search as involving “the removal or rearrangement of all or part of a person’s clothing in order to permit visual inspection of a person’s private parts, namely the genitals, buttocks, breasts… or underwear”.

In Golden, the court also recognized the fundamental intrusiveness of strip searches. They “represent a significant invasion of privacy” and are often a “humiliating, degrading and traumatic experience”. Racialized people, as well as women, may experience strip searches as sexual assaults. Incarcerated women also view their strip searches as a sexual assault.

The Supreme Court also recognized that black and Indigenous people suffer disproportionate harm due to the racial trauma associated with strip searches. In the absence of statistics, the majority of Supreme Court justices in Golden inferred that black and Indigenous people are “likely to account for a disproportionate number of those stopped by police and subjected to personal searches.” , including strip searches”.

According to law professor David Tanovich, the court’s endorsement of this fact established an anti-racism principle in the interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Protesters take part in a police fundraising rally outside Toronto Police Service headquarters in July 2020.

Strip search and systemic racism

The Toronto Police Service’s emphasis on collecting racial data on strip searches is due to the efforts of provincial oversight bodies and lawmakers to get Ontario police to comply with the law.

In its 2019 report, “Breaking the Golden Rule: A Review of Police Strip Searches in Ontario,” the Independent Police Review Director of Ontario, an independent police watchdog, found that the Ontario police were carrying out “too many” unwarranted and illegal strip searches.

While the report did not delve into issues of systemic racism, the watchdog recommended that police departments collect race-based data on strip searches as part of a broader data collection project. police data mandated by the province’s 2017 anti-racism law.

Why are strip searches necessary?

The rationale that supposedly overrides the rights of individuals is that strip searches are necessary. But are they?

Under current law, an officer can search for weapons, evidence, anything that could cause injury and aid in a person’s escape.

According to the Toronto Police Service Procedures for Searching Persons, officers should conduct a quick search before considering a strip search. The vast majority of objects are recovered during these searches.

Also, during the reservation process, the police regularly confiscate items like shoelaces and belts. Courts have criticized police forces in Ontario – York Region and Quinte West – for confiscating underwire and string bras as part of routine proceedings.

A Toronto police car is parked in the middle of a road.
Toronto police attend the scene of a collision.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The Breaking the Golden Rule report notes that Toronto police seized the bras of a third of the women they arrested from 2016 to 2019. Forced removal of these items constitutes a strip search, and strip searches naked routine are not justified by law.

Considering the net to which the police submit arrestees, especially those who are taken into custody, it is not surprising that there is not much left for them to find through a strip search.

Rarely Found Items

In May 2014, the then-Chief of Toronto Police reported to the Police Services Board that police found objects in only 2% of strip and cavity searches, and that a fraction only of these found objects posed a risk.

Unfortunately, the Toronto Police Service does not offer descriptions of these items in the current race-based strip search dataset, its open data portal, or its annual reports to the police service board. of Toronto.

Given that police rarely discover dangerous objects, is it really worth subjecting countless people to searches that are demeaning, infringing on constitutional rights and traumatizing for Black and Indigenous people who are searched disproportionately? It’s time to end the practice.


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