The Toronto policehave entered into an agreement with four downtown hospitals that will allow police officers to quickly obtain information about patients without first procuring search warrants.
The information-sharing protocol was established with St Michael’s and the three hospitals in the University Health Network — Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret. The agreement has been in place since Jun 1.
According to Michelle Farrell, Toronto Police Service’s legal counsel and ethics and equity advisor, the agreement allows police to obtain information if a patient is unable or unwilling to provide it. A police officer must fill out a form — which Farrell says she will not show to Xtra — attesting that the officer requires the information immediately. The officer must provide a badge number and contact information.
“It’s a declaration the police officer signs saying, ‘I am conducting an investigation, need the information and can’t wait to get a warrant,'” says Farrell.
Farrell says information provided by the hospitals is limited to the patient’s name, address, next of kin, location in the hospital, if the patient will be admitted, time of patient discharge and status. She says that “status” refers to whether the patient is in critical, stable or fair condition but not to any health conditions such as HIV or AIDS. She says the form also contains a question for use by the province’s Special Investigations Unit about broken bones.
Farrell says the new system — a six-month pilot project — is the result of two years of negotiations undertaken to diffuse conflict between police who wanted information for investigations and hospital staff who were unwilling to release it.
“The genesis was reports of sticky situations where police were asking for information and weren’t getting any cooperation,” says Farrell. “There were some threats that obstruction of justice charges would be filed against hospital staff. We were trying to find some common ground.”
Farrell says the information provided does not contravene Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act, which was passed in November 2004. She says that a copy of the form is placed in a patient’s file, although it’s not clear that the patient will be informed when officers access hospital information.
“We haven’t worked out when and how to tell the patient,” says Farrell. “There are lots of issues still to be resolved.”
The new agreement is also distinct from a 2005 Ontario law that requires hospitals to call police when patients with gunshot wounds show up for treatment.
Farrell says the new system allows hospital staff to know exactly what information they have to release to police. She says it also protects patients against overzealous police investigators. Farrell says that if an officer is shown to have lied about the urgency of an investigation in order to obtain the information immediately it would severely weaken any case.
According to Farrell obtaining a warrant for the information is still the preferred procedure and if police want any of the patient’s belongings a warrant is required.
“If they actually want the evidence they need a warrant,” she says.
The system is the first of its kind in Ontario although it’s based on a similar agreement in place in British Columbia.
Farrell says she meets with counsel and privacy advocates from the hospitals every month to discuss the system. After six months police and the hospitals will discuss whether to continue with the protocol or how to modify it.
Farrell says the new system has considerably eased relations with the hospitals.
“We’re proud of this as a new initiative,” she says. “We’re very grateful for the cooperation of the hospitals. Communication is the key. We are developing a better relationship with the hospitals. We are all partners in public health.”
Despite repeated attempts by Xtra, representatives from St Michael’s and the University Health Network did not return calls before press time.