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After delay, police release report on handling of ‘sexual predator’ media release

In a closed meeting two recommendations are announced

The Police Liaison Committee for the queer community meeting on Monday, July 21 collapsed into a small meltdown after members were told that the much-anticipated report of a police action — in issuing a press release that disclosed the medical status of a man, along with his name and photo — would not be released until September.

At each meeting of the Police Liaison Committee since May, the press release has been a hot topic of conversation. On May 17, Inspector Joan McKenna, co-chair of the liaison committee, admitted to attaching the phrase “sexual predator” to a release sent to the queer community. McKenna expressed regret at her choice of words but emphasized that concern for public safety trumps privacy.

In May, Police Deputy Chief Gilles Larochelle and McKenna agreed that with sensitive issues pertaining to the queer community, it may be possible to discuss having press releases checked by community co-chairs before they are sent to the Police Liaison Committee’s newsletter subscribers.

On June 21, McKenna announced that in response to public feedback, an operational debrief had been recommended by Larochelle.

During an operational debrief — which commonly are done after large police operations like the G20 or Canada Day — police and stakeholders in the operation look at five specific areas: policies, procedures, communication, equipment and training. Problem areas are then identified and recommendations are issued that will, ostensibly, fill in the gaps.

The committee involved in this particular debrief included, as well as members of the police force, Dr Vera Etches from Ottawa Public Health, Crown attorney Meaghan Cunningham and Kevin Hatt, a member of the Police Liaison Committee and former chair of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.

In June, McKenna announced that the recommendations of the report would be revealed in the July meeting — they weren’t. Members of the committee rebelled, and McKenna was called back from her annual leave to chair an extraordinary meeting that was held three days later.

McKenna outlined the operational debrief but hasn’t distributed copies of the report, which will be distributed, she says, in September.

The first thing agreed upon by the debrief committee was the statement of facts: on Friday, May 7, Ottawa Police issued a press release stating charges against an individual with his photo attached; three days later an email was sent — with the label “sexual predator” — to police liaison co-chair Marion Steele and civilian staffer Joyce Druin for distribution to the queer community.

After the press release, certain members of the queer community voiced concerns about the release of the accused’s photo and that police were taking on a role best left to Ottawa Public Health.

About the release of the accused’s photo, McKenna stressed that police only release photographs of charged persons when there is a concern for public safety.

McKenna also said that before issuing the media release, police consulted with legal services, the Sexual Assault/Child Abuse unit, media relations and the acting chief, Larochelle. Ottawa health medical officers were also contacted to seek advice concerning the appropriate medical health follow-up for people who had had sexual contact with the accused.

The first recommendation was that Ottawa Police Services conduct a review of its media relations policy and any other policies to ensure appropriate stakeholder consultation takes place prior to the release of high-risk offender information. The second recommendation was that Ottawa Police Services and Ottawa Public Health explore the options for future messaging around this type of incident and adopt practices that would ensure effective communication with the community.

The report’s conclusion was that the release of the information regarding public safety was a police priority, and releasing a photo of someone who is a threat to the community “is a highly regulated activity that is always challenged with balancing the rights of an individual with public interest.”

When the release was sent, the accused was already in custody.

It further concluded that although consultations did take place before the release, the level and nature of the consultation was an issue. The report also stressed that police would share the lessons learned from the operational debrief with the queer community and “will engage in meaningful dialogue and will contribute to continuous improvement of service delivery.”

McKenna was unsure when the reviews would begin but was confident in the fact that police would follow the recommendations. In reflecting on police actions regarding the May media release, McKenna admitted police could have done a better job communicating with the community at large, but that, again, public safety is a police priority.

“Could we have done a better job in speaking out to the community? Sure, we could have done a better job,” says McKenna. “I don’t think it would have changed the end result. We would still have put out his picture, but there would have been more consultation with the community, because again, our role is public safety, so we felt there was a concern to the community at large, to be aware of, that this person was engaged in unsafe sex.”

The meeting was closed and open only to community members who attended the previous Police Liaison Committee meeting and who expressed interest in the report. The police stressed that the meeting was not open to the media — this reporter was allowed in as a community member and was allowed to report on it from a personal point of view.

The meeting was scheduled for noon on July 22, and with 24 hours notice, few community members were able show up — Denis Schryburt for Pink Triangle Services, Brent Bauer for the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative and two youth representatives from Jer’s Vision.

McKenna chaired the meeting and was apologetic for not being able to attend Monday’s meeting as she was on leave. She said that it was her intention to release the findings at the August meeting, until she remembered that, because of Pride, there isn’t one.