Would a police record check cost you a job? The answer might surprise you
A 17-year-old woman is caught by the police with an open can of beer. The police officer drives the kid home with no ticket issued or charges laid. She is released into the care of her parents. Three years later, the young woman applies for a police record check in preparation for a volunteer position at her neighbourhood elementary school. The check comes back with a box ticked indicating that she may have had a negative encounter with the police. The elementary school declines her application to volunteer.
Two brothers get into an argument, which becomes heated. Family members are unable to deescalate the situation themselves, so they call the police for support. The police attend, stabilize the situation, and depart the scene. No charges are laid. Six months later, one of the brothers, an emergency medical technician, is getting his license renewed, and the incident appears on his police record check.
A young woman calls her friend and informs him that she is about to commit suicide. He immediately calls 911. The police attend, and take the young woman into custody under the Mental Health Act. She receives treatment and, several years later, is doing very well and has had no further contact with the police. She applies for a job as a dental hygienist and is rejected because her police record makes note of a mental health incident attended by the police.
Although these scenarios are entirely fictional, they are consistent with reports we get on a regular basis from individuals surprised to discover their “criminal records” are not as clear as they thought.
For some jobs and volunteer positions, you need to get a background check from your local police department.
Increasingly, such checks are being requested by potential employers from a broad range of sectors beyond those working specifically with vulnerable individuals. Most people refer to these checks as “criminal record checks”. They don’t think twice about sending one to a potential employer, thinking “I don’t have a criminal record, so I have nothing to worry about.”
Criminal record checks: So much more than convictions
What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that most of the time, this check is not actually a criminal record check; these police information checks actually turn up far more than just someone’s criminal record.
According to a recent document produced by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., “in addition to showing whether an individual has prior convictions or outstanding charges, a police information check also includes non-conviction records such as:
- warrants for arrest;
- peace bonds or restraining orders in effect;
- information about adverse police contact;
- charges approved by Crown Counsel that do not result in convictions;
- information related to the Youth Criminal Justice Act; and
- information about an individual’s mental health.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Assocation has three main objections to the disclose of non-conviction information as the practice currently stands
1) It is an unwarranted invasion of privacy
Employers are limited by law to collecting potential employees’ personal information only to the extent that it relates directly to their employment. The breadth of information currently disclosed as part of police information checks goes far beyond the sort of information that is directly related to the majority of employment and volunteer positions.
2) It is a violation of an individual’s right to be innocent until proven guilty
This right is absolutely fundamental to the functioning of our justice system. But police information checks include information related to allegations that have never been proven in court. Potential employers or volunteering organizations frequently perceive an individual with “negative contact” on their record as having been involved in criminal activity, even though such an individual may never even have been charged, let alone convicted.
3) It contributes to the deeply entrenched social stigma around mental health issues, and increases the chances that an individual will be discriminated against due to mental illness
Canadian human rights laws forbid discrimination on the basis of mental health status. The inclusion of mental health information in police information checks increases the likelihood that these individuals will be discriminated against by potential employers. By including mental health incidents in background checks, the unacceptable association between mental health and criminality is reinforced. This practice contributes to the insupportable stereotype that those with mental illness are a danger to society.
The release of mental health information on police information checks also acts as a disincentive for individuals in crisis to reach out to the police for help. It is outrageous that individuals are currently forced to risk becoming forever stigmatized in order to get the emergency help they need.
The BCCLA has heard dozens of stories of individuals rejected for jobs and volunteer opportunities because of non-conviction information on police information checks. Individuals who have never been charged with a criminal offense or engaged in criminal activity of any kind are unable to find employment because of their inability to secure a “clear” police information check, despite the fact that in many cases they have done absolutely nothing wrong.
Furthermore, there is no meaningful process for getting this information removed or supressed from one’s record. Individuals can contact their local police detachment and request that information is removed, but in our experience, these requests are rarely successful.
The release of non-conviction information on police information checks is costing innocent people jobs. And there is very little that they can do about it.
For years, the government has shown little interest in addressing this shocking situation, despite pressure from the BCCLA and other concerned groups and individuals. But the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. recently announced an investigation into the use of police information checks, and we are hopeful that commissioner Elizabeth Denham will recommend significant changes to current practices. She has invited public input as part of her investigation. The BCCLA will be making its voice heard by making a written submission, and we hope you will do the same.
How to make a submission to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s investigation
If you have been negatively impacted by a police information check, or believe as we do that this practice as it currently stands is a violation of civil liberties, now is your chance to make your voice heard. Email your input to email@example.com no later than February 21, 2014.
The Privacy Commissioner’s call for public comment is available here.
That document includes background information on the issue of police information checks as well as guidelines for submissions.
The BCCLA is also compiling stories of individuals whose lives have been negatively impacted by the disclosure of non-conviction information on police information checks. Tell us your story or send us a copy of your submission to the Privacy Commissioner by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.