Ricardo G. Federico In The News
OPP faces scrutiny over DNA testing sweep that brought racial-profiling complaint
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director says seeking DNA from 100 farm workers whose sole similarity was skin colour raises disturbing questions.
Ontario’s police watchdog has launched a review of the DNA sampling practices of the Ontario Provincial Police after a complaint alleging racial profiling in the case of 100 migrant workers. The workers were subjected to a testing sweep, even though for many their only similarity to the suspect’s description was skin colour.
It’s the second such systemic review announced in a week’s time, and the third of its kind since the inception of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in late 2009.
“Allegations that dozens of migrant workers who were asked to submit to DNA tests for a criminal investigation did not match the description of the suspect except for their dark skin colour raises the spectre of racial profiling and Charter rights issues,” Gerry McNeilly, the independent police review director, said in a statement Monday.
At the core of the review is the case from the Tillsonburg, Ont., area where the DNA sweep was conducted in late October 2013 in connection with a police investigation of a violent sexual assault.
Men whose characteristics differed widely from the suspect’s description were asked to submit to a DNA test.
Justicia for Migrant Workers, a group that found and interviewed 44 of the 100 people who voluntarily gave samples, learned that roughly half of those they spoke to were shorter than the specified height of the suspect, and about half were older than 41, when the suspect was said to be in his twenties.
McNeilly told the Star that systemic reviews have been rare, partly because of the workload his office has faced following complaints about the policing of the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. The office receives about 3,500 complaints per year and investigates about half of those, mainly related to police conduct, policy and service matters, he said.
This review is “rare in the sense that it’s the third one, but you also have to accept that we’ve only been in operation since late 2009, and then we were hit with the G20. That took an awfully long time because of the magnitude of it,” McNeilly said.
According to the complaint filed by Justicia, a woman in Bayham, Ont., told the OPP she had been sexually assaulted on Oct. 19, 2013, by a muscular black male, between five-foot-ten and six feet tall, with no facial hair and in his mid- to late-20s.
The OPP announced in December that the force arrested 35-year-old Henry Cooper, a migrant worker from Trinidad and Tobago, and charged him with sexual assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and uttering death threats. In a news conference announcing the arrest, the OPP said DNA evidence was key.
Cooper was not among those identified by Justicia as having submitted samples, outreach worker Chris Ramsaroop told the Star. It is not known if the accused man voluntarily provided a sample to police.
DNA sweeps have proven controversial before. A 2011 move by police to test males in connection with the death of Orangeville nurse Sonia Varaschin prompted a complaint from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to the province’s privacy commissioner.
Ricardo Federico, a criminal lawyer and adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, noted the complaint focuses on racial profiling, but the practice of DNA sweeps raises many other broad questions.
“How far do we want the dragnet to go? Do we want the science police knocking on everybody’s door, is what I ask,” said Federico. “What happens if you refuse such a request? Do you become a greater suspect? That’s worrisome.”
OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis responded to the complaint after it was filed, saying, “As an organization, we do not permit our employees to engage in racial profiling.”
OPP spokesman Sgt. Pierre Chamberland said the force would cooperate with the review.
“We look forward to the review, and obviously we’re going to cooperate fully. We’re confident of our investigative practices. If there are ways we can enhance our policies going forward, we’ll be glad to take a look at those options,” he said.
McNeilly said he has set a six-month deadline for the review. When completed, the report and recommendations of the watchdog will be made public.