Police too prying in volunteer background checks, privacy group says

A privacy watchdog is calling on B.C.’s privacy commissioner to investigate whether police departments are being too intrusive in the questions posed to potential volunteers and employees.

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association said several police departments are collecting “unnecessary, inappropriate and excessive personal information” from people applying for paid and unpaid positions.

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The non-profit association was approached by someone applying for a volunteer position with the Delta Police Department’s community police section. They had been given a 25-page “integrity and lifestyle questionnaire” asking about sexual activity, drug use, finances and whether the applicant has ever been unemployed or on welfare.

Applicants also have to undergo a polygraph test and a background investigation and are told “deceit, dishonest or non-disclosure concerning questions in this document may result in your disqualification from current or future civilian employment opportunities.”

“This kind of statement encourages respondents to disclose further personal information even when it is not specifically asked for,” said Vincent Gogolek, the association’s executive director.

Once the privacy association started investigating, it found many police departments across B.C. have similar questionnaires, he said.

The association is asking B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, to determine whether police departments are invading people’s privacy with these questions. Denham’s office confirmed it had received the complaint and said staff would be reviewing it before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation.

Delta police spokeswoman Sgt. Sarah Formby said this was the first time the department had heard concerns about its questionnaire. “As a result, we are conducting a review on our own and will also await the outcome of the investigation by the privacy commissioner.”

In Greater Victoria, the protocol for volunteer applications varies widely between departments.

RCMP detachments ask their prospective volunteers to fill out a three-page application form with basic contact information, availability, reasons for applying, previous job and education experience and references. Applicants typically also undergo an interview and background check. Central Saanich police have a similar application form for volunteers.

However, the process for reserve constables is much more detailed. “We’re required by provincial policy to conduct screening to the same standard of police officers,” said Central Saanich deputy police chief Les Sylven. “They’re put in a position of trust and we need to know their background is clean.”

Oak Bay police deputy chief Kent Thom said the department doesn’t have an application form, but asks for a resumé. Applicants usually go through an interview process and background check but do not have to take a polygraph test.

Thom said he can see how people might take exception with some questions on the Delta police questionnaire. He said Oak Bay police has never received complaints about asking for too much personal information.

“We have to be very careful about who we allow into our building and allow access to sensitive information, so sometimes we have to be very specific when we’re asking people for information,” Thom said. “But there is a fine line and you can’t step over it and violate people’s privacy.”

In April, Denham slammed police departments for handing out unnecessary personal information in employment-related records checks, including information that has not led to a criminal conviction or charge and mental-health information such as suicide attempts.

The Victoria Police Department has stopped doing criminal record checks until the province comes up with new legislation regarding what information should be released.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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