Police Records Checks

[NOTE: An updated post on Criminal Records Checks was published in January 2016]

Some years ago in this column we wrote about volunteer screening and police records checks, shortly on the heels of Sheldon Kennedy’s 1997 disclosure about sexual abuse by his minor hockey coach. The topic was fairly new at that time: now that screening of volunteers through police checks has become truly mainstream, we think it’s a good idea to revisit the topic.

Most youth-focused sport organizations now screen volunteer coaches through police checks. We have helped many organizations prepare policy tools for this purpose, and have also advised coaches who are subject to screening. It is our observation that policies for police checks are somewhat effective because they create a powerful incentive for ‘self-screening’: in other words, individuals who know they cannot pass a police check decide to not even try, and instead quietly leave the organization.

When self-screening does not work, however, sport organizations often find themselves in a major dilemma. Suddenly, an administrator or a volunteer receives a police check that comes back positive for an offense, and they haven’t a clue what to do next. This is usually because the organization has not done its homework in crafting a policy to guide it through the process. Rather, they have taken a general policy template and have adopted it without thinking through how it might work, or not work, in their particular situation.

Before going further, we wish to stress that police checks are but one component of volunteer screening. Volunteer Canada’s Safe Steps Screening Program identifies ten steps for screening of which only one is a police clearance. Our writing this column does not infer that ‘screening’ should be equated with ‘police checks’: however, the police check is one component of screening that has a legal element which is why we are writing about it.

Based on our experiences of guiding groups and individuals through the exercise of screening using police checks, we have found that policies encounter problems in the following five areas:

Deciding who should be screened

The first step in an effective screening program is to understand that not everyone needs to be screened. Not every position within an organization poses the same degree of risk of harm to the organization’s vulnerable members. Only those positions of trust and authority that involve unsupervised contact with minors require screening. The organization’s policies should identify these positions, and thus succinctly state who is subject to screening and who is not. It may very well be that after completing the analysis of that risk, only a handful of positions that truly require screening.

Deciding what sort of police record to obtain

As we said in our previous column, there is no such thing as a standard police check. While the process usually starts from the same basic database (CPIC – the Canadian Police Information Centre), each police jurisdiction will do it differently. A cursory check will reveal only criminal convictions while a detailed check can reveal any police contact, as well as complaints, charges and civil proceedings. Typically, the organization requiring police records checks from their volunteers is going to have to negotiate specific agreements with each police jurisdiction in their geographic area. In other words, there is much homework to be done before the policy is even put into effect.

Deciding what the policy is screening for

This step is almost never addressed in screening policies, yet must be. The organization doing screening must explicitly decide what criminal offenses are incompatible with positions of trust and authority within their programs. If the policy is not specific on this, then one must assume that any criminal offense is incompatible – and this is an absurd position.

Determining which offenses are incompatible requires a discussion of the purposes of the screening policy. If it is to protect minors from harm then there are certain offenses that would clearly be incompatible, such as possession, distribution or sale of child pornography; or any sexual offenses involving minors. Less directly relevant but still problematic offenses would include trafficking under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, more serious forms of assault such as assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm or sexual assault. Unrelated offenses that may not be incompatible could include motor vehicle offenses such as speeding or impaired driving, level 1 or common assault, or possession of drugs for personal use.

In all cases an organization that wants to screen volunteers has to think about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Such decisions must relate to the overall purpose of the screening policy, and should not be motivated by issues or morality or lifestyle. There also has to be a connection between the offense and the position: if driving a motor vehicle is not part of the position, then why should we be concerned about motor vehicle offenses?

As well, the policy should address mitigating factors such as the age of the offender at the time of the offense, and the passage of time – does a crime committed as a youth carry the same stigma as a crime committed as an adult? Does a criminal offense committed 15 years ago have the same weight as one committed 5 years ago? In both cases, likely not.

Deciding who reviews the results of screening, and how

It has been our experience that while lay people might have a good sense of organizational culture and expectations, they don’t necessarily have the skill set to read and interpret the information contained in a police check. Police checks should be reviewed by a committee that includes people from law enforcement, police or justice backgrounds who can make sense of the contents of the check. The checks should also be reviewed on a ‘blind’ basis, meaning that the individual’s name has been blocked out, and the committee should operate independently of the board, executive and staff of the organization.

Managing confidentiality and privacy

In an age of PIPEDA and privacy concerns, administering a volunteer screening process through police records checks is a responsible undertaking. There is no reason for an organization to retain any original copies of police records checks once they have been reviewed. In fact, we recommend that all documents be returned to the individual who supplied them and that no copies be kept. As well, any records, correspondence, or minutes documenting the meetings of the review committee should be stored in a secure location, outside of the sport organization’s office. Lastly, the policy should identify a schedule for destruction of the records.

In conclusion, while there is widespread acceptance that volunteer coaches in sport should undergo police screening, there is very little uniformity or quality in how it’s done across Canada. We encourage all coaches to learn more about the screening process that they are subject to. Ask for a copy of your organization’s policy and review it in light of the shortcomings described above. Then initiate an informed discussion about the objectives of the policy, about positions that ought to be subject to screening, and about offenses that are incompatible with these positions. This will improve the policy for your organization, and for coaches such as yourself.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2005) Vol. 12(1)

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