CITY HALL BUREAU
Aug. 5, 2004. 06:13 AMLooking for information? Don't turn to the Toronto Police Service.
When it comes to freedom of information requests, the 7,000-strong service boasts the lowest response rate of any police force in the province, according to a report by Ontario's information and privacy commissioner.
"This is a real problem. It's no longer acceptable," Ann Cavoukian said in an interview yesterday.
The Toronto police freedom of information office replied to only one-third of the 2,794 requests it received last year within the mandated 30-day period.
In comparison, the next "worst offender" was the Hamilton Police Service, which responded within 30 days to 71 per cent of the 1,245 requests it received. Outside of Toronto, the average grade of police services around the province was 85.2 per cent.
To make matters worse, the Toronto force's problem seems to be chronic.
In 1999, it responded to 82 per cent of requests within the required month. By 2000, that had dropped to 61.2 per cent. Last year, it hit an all-time low of 32.5 per cent.
"It's become a systemic problem. Every year compliance seems to get even worse. And it is a legislated requirement — it is the law under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act — that you are required to respond to a request for information within 30 days," said Cavoukian, who met with police services board chair Alan Heisey to address the problem last month.
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash said the co-ordinator of the service's 11-person freedom of information office is on vacation, and no one else was qualified to respond to Cavoukian's findings, tabled in the Ontario Legislature in June. But, he said the force will present a case to boost the number of freedom of information analysts and work with the police legal team to streamline the process of responding to requests.
Heisey has responded by calling on Toronto police Chief Julian Fantino to work with Cavoukian's office to come up with a plan to address the problem. He wants the response rate to be boosted to 58 per cent by next year.
"We've got to get it moving in the other direction," said Heisey, whose report will be discussed by board members at their next meeting in September. "Other large police services have been able to comply better."
In her report, Cavoukian states the reasons given for the force's "poor performance" include "an increase in the complexity of requests, the departure of experienced staff during the year and an increase in the number of requests in excess of 8 per cent."
But, that can't explain it all, since the number of requests has only increased by about 600 since 1999, when the force's response rate was more than double what it is now, she said.
In comparison, the Hamilton police's two-person office processed 71 per cent of just under half the number of requests Toronto had last year. Niagara police's two-person office got to 84.2 per cent of the 690 requests it received.
"I understand the police are burdened with very important cases and we respect the role they serve. Having said that we want to work with them to improve this compliance rate," she said. "There has to be at least an attempt made on the part of the police force to improve compliance. This is information that the public has a right of access to."
Most requests for information from police services deal with police reports on serious accidents, and domestic and custody disputes, said Brenda Sauchuk, an analyst with the Niagara police freedom of information unit. By law, public bodies, including provincial ministries and police services, must send a "decision letter" within 30 days to people requesting information, either explaining why the information can't be disclosed, or approving the request.