Toronto Police Services Board ordered to release crime data

Last summer, The Toronto Star’s investigative series on Crime and Punishment showed incarceration rates in east-end Toronto (between Riverdale and the Beach) comparable to that of some of the City’s Priority Neighbourhood Areas. It was just one of the startling findings, found through hard data analysis – the sort of data to which most researchers do not have access.

This week, pursuing an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal, reporter Jim Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team won another victory for researchers interested in looking at the interplay of crime data with other social variables.

Back in May 2003, using a Freedom of Information request, Rankin requested police records on arrests and occurrences, with identifying information removed, in order to do an analysis of the prevalence of racial profiling. When the Toronto Police Services Board refused, Rankin appealed to the Privacy Commissioner. The Police Board was ordered to comply with the request. Instead, they appealed and won at the next level. Last week, on appeal, Rankin (and the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner) won the case against the Toronto Police Services Board. The Police Board was ordered to comply and to reimburse court costs to Rankin.

The request for the police data was found to be reasonable and appropriate under the Freedom of Information Act,  in accordance with the principle of open government processes.  As underscored by the Supreme Court in a different case,  Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance), “Transparency and accountability are vital to the democratic process.”

The pursuit of this data is a bit of a Holy Grail. Researchers who work at a neighbourhood level look to crime data as an important part of the social profiles of neighbourhood, its residents, and the shape of any program interventions. Yet, for years, I have sat in meetings with other social researchers who described the runarounds and their failed efforts to access police crime data. It’s not that the data isn’t there. One Superintendent I met at a public meeting assured me he looked at that kind of data regularly. So how come the pursuit felt more like Monty Python’s Holy Grail?

The Toronto Star has been one of the first to be successful in the quest for this sort of data, initially tracking their own news reports and mapping Toronto homicides in Googlemaps. Perhaps provoked to it, the Police Services website soon began to publish similar data, with disclaimers.

Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team deserve much praise for their faithful quest of these hidden treasures.

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