The increasing use of police background checks, also known as criminal record checks or criminal reference checks, to screen applicants for suitability for employment, volunteer efforts, promotion, education, and other opportunities has been raising privacy and human rights eyebrows across Canada and is now starting to reach news media and courts.
Definitely, police background checks do constitute an important safeguard for public safety and security. The goal is to protect vulnerable people from harm or employers from theft. In fact, a company, agency, or school that fails to do so runs the risk of being negligent.
However, the focus must be on “relevancy”. There is a danger of providing too much, or misleading information. In particular, providing information that is unnecessary for determining suitability or that is incorrect may violate the privacy of an applicant and lead to unfair rejection. Significant harm can arise when irrelevant, inaccurate, or incomplete information is provided from a police background report.
Police databases may contain information about any contact with the police, whether a person is a complainant, victim, potential witness, suspect, “person of interest,” or one charged with a crime – even if charges were subsequently dropped or an acquittal followed.
The manner in which police background checks are conducted creates a risk of violation of applicants’ privacy and human rights. Section 32 of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act permits police to disclose personal information only if the person concerned has identified that information in particular and consented to its disclosure.
Police departments recognize the problem inherent in the manner in which background checks are carried out. The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police produced guidelines in 1999 for Ontario police departments, although they have never been released to the public and have not resulted in consistent practices among police forces. Other jurisdictions as well have introduced legislation to regulate what may be disclosed, how the accuracy and relevance of information can be verified, and what uses recipient organizations may make of the information.
However, it seems apparent that the various approaches taken by jurisdictions dealing with police background checks need more consistency. As well, current privacy and human rights laws alone are not sufficient to ensure a proper balance between public safety and personal privacy.
Background checks can be done quickly and cost-effectively. It is in the best interest of all Canadians looking for employment, volunteer opportunities to get a background check before their employer. Therefore, the person can look into other options available to them, such as a pardon or record deletion.
For additional information on pardons, criminal legislation in Canada, employment and travel, check out these resources.