3 min

Split searches inappropriate

Toronto police lack trans-specific policies

Ontario police forces are falling short on trans-specific policies when it comes to searches, detention and court appearances.

“We don’t have protection,” says Rosalyn Forrester, founder of Canadian Transexuals Fight For Rights. “There are no set-in-stone policies in Ontario.”

Forrester says she’s been strip searched by male officers while in the custody of Peel Region Police and has seen other trans women strip searched by male officers in public.

She has also been “split searched.” For a trans woman, this means that a female officer searches her upper body and, if she had a penis, a male officer searches her lower body.

“A split search leaves the transsexual person victimized by police,” says Forrester. “You are no longer safe and you are made to feel very much a freak.”

Toronto police community liaison staff sergeant Sharon Davis says that trans people are usually searched by officers of the same sex as the person’s chosen gender, but “it depends how far along in the transition the person is.”

This means a trans person’s right to be searched by a person of the same gender can be overruled if police feel the individual is “not transitioned enough.” There is no way for the trans person to appeal that decision prior to the search.

Forrester currently has a complaint in front of the Ontario Human Rights Commission against the Peel region police force. At the same time, Peel police are looking at adopting a split-search policy for trans people.

Two expert witnesses for Forrester have testified as to the inappropriate nature of such a policy.

“Choice, full choice, needs to be in the hands of the transsexual person and not that of the police,” testified Leah Steele, a research fellow at the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health and a practitioner at St Michael’s Hospital. “Even if done with respect a transsexual person could not help but be traumatized by being searched by the wrong officer.”

Then there’s the question of detention. Toronto’s police divisions do have a policy that states that trans detainees are to be housed in individual cells, which provides them with a level of safety. However, if a trans person is being detained in the Don Jail, Metro West or Metro East detention centres they are commonly sent to men’s or women’s facilities based on their genitals, regardless of what their personal identity or appearance is and regardless of the gender listed on their identification.

Trans women often face harassment from other detainees, which can include sexual assault.

“At the divisions all the cells are separate so it’s less of an issue for us,” says Davis.

As for court appearances, Forrester describes how police often include unnecessary information about a trans person’s gender identity in their police screening form, information that is read out each time a person is brought to court. She says this influences court officials and serves to embarrass or shame the trans person.

Cynthia Cousens, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Services GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans] Community Liaison Committee, says officers are frustrated with a lack of clear policies.

Cousens served on the Toronto police force for 28 years. She felt it would have been impossible to transition on the force, and took early retirement. The experience of Bonnie Henderson, a Toronto officer who transition on the job, bears out Cousens’ fears. Henderson had a stellar service record, but after identifying herself as trans to management, was transferred from her duties as a school liaison officer and subjected to discriminatory behaviour which led to her eventual resignation. Henderson has filed a human rights complaint against the Toronto Police Service.

“Transsexuality is a recognized medical condition, which means people must be allowed access to treatment and police must adhere to medical standards in respecting a trans person’s human rights,” says Cousens, who now provides training on trans issues to police forces around the province. She has not been invited to work with the Toronto force.

Based on her experiences, Cousens identifies “a subculture of police who want to change. Police/community partnerships are advantageous. Police officers don’t like to see their careers messed up with by civil suits or human rights tribunals. Senior management is where the problems are.”

Cousens says many recruits are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea of transsexuality, “I’m clear with them. Transitioning is not an offence – in terms of indecent exposure or anything.”

Cousens describes the Ottawa police’s practices of providing training and working with the community as a best practices model, and one that could easily be adopted by other forces.

But for the moment, policy makers for the Toronto force seem to feel that a lack of explicit policy is acceptable. And when problems do arise?

“The public complaints process is there,” says Davis.