September 02, 2022 – A growing intervention model that partners police with schools, healthcare providers and social workers to identify people believed to be “at risk” of becoming criminals or victims of crime is violating minors’ privacy, omitting crucial data, and may have contributed to deaths or unlawful apprehensions, as revealed by documents obtained in an in-depth investigation by The Breach, a Montreal news media organization.
British Columbia and Ontario are the most aggressive users of this “predictive policing” model.
First created in 2011, the so-called “Situation Tables” [also known as “Hubs”] have been rolled out in cities across Canada, assessing thousands of people and launching hundreds of interventions led or assisted by police every year.
There are around 150 Tables currently active in Canada with funding from provinces or cities, and no provincial or federal oversight.
According to notes of a Table meeting in Ontario obtained from the provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General through a freedom-of-information request, police and their partners discussed individuals who died after being evaluated by Tables and acknowledged a lack of accountability.
As Situation Tables continue to spread across Canada and intervene in non-criminal “situations,” those who are targeted risk having police and social services show up at their door — and possibly be arrested or hospitalized without consent. Policing experts and academics are describing the program as “shocking,” “terrifying,” and bound to “amplify racism.”
Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says they would have “serious concerns” if information is being unnecessarily shared between police and different agencies.
In press coverage, police and government supporters of Situation Tables routinely highlight the potential for positive outcomes of intervention and cite feel-good anecdotes like City, Nanaimo RCMP optimistic about how ‘situation tables’ can help people, one at a time reported March 25, 2021 by the Nanaimo News Bulletin.
“Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson, before she became B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, presented to Nanaimo city council about situation tables,” according to a story that ran in the Nanaimo News Bulletin on March 12, 2021, Public safety, health and social agencies will work together to try to help individuals one by one.
“To better connect vulnerable people with the services that can prevent crisis, crime and disorder, situation tables problem-solve one case at a time, so at-risk individuals get the help they need,” said Malcolmson in a press release.”
But Laura Huey, a criminologist at Western University, said that the evidence proving beneficial outcomes of Situation Tables is “virtually non-existent.”
“There has not been one single, independent, peer-reviewed evaluation of any version of a Canadian…Table published in a credible research journal,” she said.
Situation Tables operate as informal coordinating bodies, with no permanent address. Despite usually being administered by police, their activities are considered outside of police responsibility.
Police, social services, and health workers in Canada are using shared databases to track the behaviour of vulnerable people—including minors and people experiencing homelessness—with little oversight and often without consent.
“This is about expanding the footprint of public policing, without any indication it is helping anyone at all,” said Kevin Walby, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, after seeing the documents. “They allow police to insinuate themselves in schools and elsewhere, without representing the harm done by the system.”
The rise of predictive policing
Experts in privacy and surveillance have referred to Situation Tables as a form of predictive policing, when police use data and insights to predict who may commit a crime in the future.
Depending on whether they’re in a rural or urban area, Situation Tables are typically administered by local or provincial police, and in some cases by the RCMP in partnership with mental health agencies.
Children’s Aid Services, housing assistance agencies and youth services organizations also participate.
The first Table was launched in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 2011 under then-Chief of Police Dale McFee, who has become a prominent promoter of the model and is now chief of police of the Edmonton Police Service.
The Situation Table model has since expanded across Canada, and also the United States, where there are at least a dozen in operation.
In the city of Toronto alone, 537 people or families were subject to intervention in 2018 – The Future of Canadian Policing Is Turning Teachers Into Cops.
Situation Table members meet outside of their employing organizations to identify individuals and families they think are heading for trouble, based on a list of risk factors [see page 19] that include whether a person uses alcohol, displays “negative behavior” or lives in a “negative neighborhood.”
Their stated goal is to prevent crime and “social disorder.”
Police interventions without consent
For a Situation Table member to refer an individual or family for intervention, they typically must first obtain consent.
But if they agree a person is at “Acutely Elevated Risk,” the person’s information can be shared—and an intervention deployed — without consent.
In those cases, agencies must inform the person after the fact that their information has been shared.
It has also raised concerns with some experts. “As soon as you’re identified [as at-risk], it changes how people interact with you,” said Valerie Steeves, a University of Ottawa criminologist. “At that point, you become the problem: ‘we need to watch you, all the time, so we can fix you.’” Not much scrutiny, however, has been placed on the people who are pushing the model, or how it has spread across Canada.
Previous reports have shown the Situation Table interventions disproportionately target minors and Indigenous women, collect sensitive data from people into a Risk Tracking Database, and routinely launch interventions without consent.
Tari Ajadi, a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University who studies racism and public policy, told The Breach he has “massive concerns” about the Situation Table approach.
“It’s a really horrible model,” Ajadi said. “This is a bunch of institutions ganging up on people who are defenseless. Situation Tables turn the model of collaborative community-centric care on its head, and put it in the grasp of the carceral state… How could this ever be allowed in the context of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”
Despite claims by police that they reduce crimes, data from cities using Situation Tables show crime has in some cases risen after they were launched.
Deaths following intervention
Notes from a June 2020 call between Situation Table agencies and representatives from Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General show members struggling to maintain operations as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted normal working conditions.
But as participants worked to resolve issues around booking Zoom meetings and adapting to staff shortages, deeper issues came to light — including deaths of at-risk people following intervention, a lack of accountability, and concerns around consent and privacy.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that the Hub (aka Situation Table) model “should not be operating” without solid evidence that the model works to save lives and prevent crime.
“For a process that’s deeply invasive, potentially stigmatizing, and that causes ripple effects across many aspects of vulnerable people’s lives, [we need] to be sure that these programs do more good than harm,” McPhail said. “The risk to individuals caught up in [Hubs/Situation Tables] is profound.”
Throughout the documents, most participating members [of a Situation Table] are referred to by their first names and their professions are not disclosed.
During the conference call, they discussed how referring people to Tables without consent can be deeply traumatizing for those they’re trying to help.
“There are many strong opinions about [disclosure], because when people are in crisis, it can be damaging for them to find out information has been shared,” a Table member named Angela says.
Meeting attendees went on to share experiences of individuals dying after being targeted by a Situation Table.
“We had a recent experience with our table. Very high-risk case… Door knock [intervention] proceeded. It was a family situation, and someone passed away,” explains a participant named Elyse, who didn’t specify if the person died during or after the intervention. “It was very traumatic.”
“Had two individuals who passed away by suicide who had been previously involved with the table,” recounts a participant named Stephanie.
Another member, Anita, describes how a person died of an overdose after being contacted by the Table. “Did a reflection at the Table to express grief.”
“We always have the best intentions,” said Elyse. “It doesn’t always end up the way we hope it will.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General said the government does not track the number of people who have died after being targeted by Situation Tables.
In a separate conversation during the same meeting, a member named Dave expressed concern about a lack of accountability among participating agencies.
“Our area struggles with certain agencies that are identified to be part of the [intervention] process, and then don’t follow through,” Dave says. “An accident happened the other day after someone was brought to the table…Wondering if there is anything other tables are doing if there is an accident or death — is there any reporting that has to be done?”
Table member Evon responds by telling Dave that Situation Tables are not responsible for the people they target.
“We’re not their [case] managers…we are limited in that accountability,” Evon says. “If it becomes an ongoing issue it is worth speaking to a manager, because we’re dealing with people’s lives.”
The Ministry of the Solicitor General did not respond to questions about whether accountability mechanisms will be put in place for Table agencies.
“Situation Tables have a firm foundation in Canada and are a significant improvement over fragmented systems of social service delivery that primarily rely on law enforcement to be service providers across a variety of circumstances for which they may not be best suited,” the Ministry said in response to questions.
The Breach was unable to confirm the identities of people who have died following intervention. Situation Table agencies and the provincial government do not disclose identifying information about those targeted for intervention.
Revelations about deaths following Situation Table interventions are “angering to hear, but it’s what I would have suspected the outcome to be,” Ajadi said.
“We know about the horrors of police wellness checks,” Ajadi said, pointing to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and others who died during police interventions. “We know what contact with the criminal justice system means for people who are in crisis.”
Walby, the associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, told The Breach that sharing people’s personal information without consent is unethical and dangerous.
“This sharing of information is incredibly invasive, incredibly damaging,” said Walby. “We know from a lot of research that when people first come into contact with the system — when they are acutely experiencing trauma — that’s when they’re most likely to experience real distress.”
“This could be one explanation why those deaths and accidents are happening.”
Huey, the Western University criminologist, has also expressed concern that Situation Tables could be causing more harm than good.
Huey has written that Situation Tables cannot show that “no adverse consequences ensued from…intervention” or that “people’s lives improved as a result of the intervention.”
Even if an intervention goes smoothly and an at-risk person is connected with social services, what Huey calls a “backfire effect” could lead to “other individuals being denied services” due to a lack of available resources in the health system.
Lack of data on race, ethnicity
For the most part, Situation Tables across Canada avoid collecting race or ethnicity data about who is being targeted for intervention.
One exception is British Columbia, where some Tables keep track of people who identify as Indigenous.
A VICE News investigation last year found that between 2015 and 2020, 40 percent of all interventions targeting women launched by the Situation Table in Surrey, B.C. involved Indigenous women, despite Indigenous people making up just 2.6 percent of the city’s population.
Notes from the June 2020 meeting show Situation Tables in Ontario are still not collecting race or ethnicity data, despite efforts of some members to include it.
“Doesn’t look as if anyone is gathering race-based stats,” says a Table member named Brian. “Legislation exists and it is very complicated. Toronto Police and government experts looking [sic] into it to advise on how to do it.”
“Ministry is not looking into this at the moment, but can do and will share if anything comes up,” replies James, a representative of Ministry of the Solicitor General.
The Ministry of the Solicitor General did not respond to questions about whether Table agencies will be required to collect race and ethnicity data in the future.
The omission of race data by Situation Tables is typical of police, according to Walby.
“In Canada, police have avoided collecting data on race and ethnicity for decades, because if they did it would show the primary activity of police is racial profiling, not crime reduction or public safety,” he said.
Walby pointed out that the few times race data has been collected by police services, such as in Toronto and Ottawa, the data showed police engage in racial profiling.
The systematic omission of race data in Tables “shows the political and social nature of the Table network” said Walby. “When the data is collected, it is so damning that people start seeing the reality of policing, which is profiling and the protecting of certain political interests.”
Ajadi told The Breach the Table approach is “a great way to amplify racism.”
“I would like to know what empirical evidence they have that shows [Tables] save lives,” Ajadi said. “We have a lot of proof that giving people agency and building communities that are well-supported, that aren’t being polluted and gentrified—these are things we know quite well actually save lives.”
‘Serious concerns’ about youth privacy right violations
Previous reporting shows a high number of Situation Table interventions target minors aged 12 to 17.
Notes from a January 2020 call reveal Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) has expressed concern about the use of Tables in a youth justice setting, due to their potential to violate the strict privacy protections of minors’ personal information.
“[Information and Privacy Commissioner] question [sic] whether Table is an appropriate use for the [Youth Criminal Justice Act],” a Table member named Claudia is quoted as saying in the notes.
She adds that cases in which a minor’s personal information can be shared are “very specific under that Act, and there needs to be strong consideration around when it can be used.”
Claudia mentions that the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) data input field in the Situation Table Risk Tracking Database — used to track if a person is a minor involved with the justice system — is often left blank by Table members. “Many don’t know what it is for, or don’t use it.”
In response to questions by The Breach, Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner said they “are unaware of any provision of the YCJA that would permit the disclosure of information” of minors involved with the justice system among the numerous agencies involved in Situation Tables.
Walby has similar concerns. “In a research context, if I wanted to research young people, there are so many ethical procedures I’d have to follow to safeguard their information,” he said. “I could never share their info with another agency, it’s not allowed. The fact that this sharing is allowed at Tables is shocking.”
Ajadi said Situation Tables compound the surveillance and harassment many youth of color experience at the hands of social institutions, including schools and police.
“Do the youth have rights? Do they know they are being discussed? Can they exempt their data from being discussed? Are their parents at the Table?” Ajadi asked. “This model perpetuates contact with the criminal justice system… It is terrifying this is happening.”
Across Canada, Situation Tables and programs inspired by them continue to expand their mandate, justifying predictive intervention for behavior ranging from truancy to radicalization to violence.
In B.C., Tables monitor people’s online behavior and have expanded the definition of what constitutes “radicalization.”
In Ottawa, police and a school board are using that city’s Table to redefine truancy and label students who skip class as being at “Acutely Elevated Risk,” opening the door for non-consensual intervention.
Walby said that the secretive nature of Situation Tables keeps the public from seeing the true impacts of the approach.
“People aren’t getting a sense of the qualitative harms caused by Tables,” he said. “People subject to intervention may develop a distrust of social institutions, and may be less likely to access health care. There is criminological literature showing how exposure to the system makes people less likely to trust all social institutions.”
The internal meeting notes obtained by The Breach also reveal potential solutions to the problems plaguing Situation Tables.
Comments from some members suggest that the Tables aren’t the most effective way to help people with complex needs.
“Have seen significant drop-off for [Table] discussions,” an unnamed Table member from Chatham-Kent is quoted as saying. “Municipality has recently opened a homeless shelter that has all services under one roof…we think that is why there has been a drop off.”
The same member later suggests that integrated social services may in fact be more effective than the Table approach.
“It is working very well.”
Nathan Munn is a writer and investigative journalist based in Quebec, Canada. This article was first published July 28, 2022 in The Breach, republished here with permission. Nathan Munn’s work has been featured in VICE, The Verge, Maisonneuve Magazine, Popula and elsewhere.