Toronto Police and other services in the province will benefit from a new Act proclaimed by the Ontario government that addresses barriers faced by law enforcement when investigating missing persons.
Police now have the ability to obtain a judicial order to get copies of records that may assist in a search, a search warrant that allows entry onto a premises to locate a missing person and also make an urgent demand for records without a court order.
Chief Mark Saunders said the legislation will be an important resource for police officers across Ontario who work to find the thousands of missing people every year.
“In Toronto, we have created a Missing Persons Unit dedicated to improving the way we investigate and find people who are missing,” he said at a press conference outside police headquarters on July 18 to launch the new legislation. “We try to bring them back to their lives, their families and their safety
“…Even with the dedicated team, we know that no two cases are the same. We are here today because, simply put, the more resources we have and the more tools that we have, the better chances we have for success. With the Missing Persons Act, we will now have an opportunity and ability to access information that was previously unavailable to investigators, in many cases specifically when a crime was not immediately evident.”
D/Sgt. Stacy Gallant said the Service’s Missing Person investigators will benefit from the new legislation.
“Keeping the privacy of the individual in mind along with the person’s safety and security obtaining access to records can significantly advance an investigation, specifically those that cannot be resolved in short order,” he said. “Knowing that a cell phone is still active and where it was last used, knowing the last place a credit or debit card was used are records that can lead to other potentially valuable evidence like video surveillance of the missing person, last known contacts, if the person was alone and if the person sought medical attention. This helps develop the footprint of the individual both electronically and physically.”
Gallant said investigators will continue to assess the risk level of the missing person and take appropriate actions.
The Service’s Missing Person Unit, he added, has been in the process of reviewing and updating procedures related to Missing Persons and Unidentified Human Remains.
“As Toronto’s new Missing Person Unit continues to evolve, we strive to ensure that investigators have the tools, training, support and guidance while ensuring transparency and accountability to those that we serve,” Gallant said. “We look forward to utilizing these new tools. In fact, our investigators have already started to utilize the new tool to gain access to records previously unavailable on a number of older cases under review.”
Toronto Police investigates between 4,000 and 5,000 missing persons annually. Most of the cases are resolved expeditiously with the person being located unharmed and safe.
Last year, nearly 7,500 adult Ontarians were reported missing to police.
“In some sad and extreme cases, they won’t be found before tragedy strikes and it’s too late,” said Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
She’s confident that each of the new tools will help police locate loved ones quickly and effectively.
“At the same time, we recognize that not every missing person wants to be found and that safeguards must be built into the legislation to protect the privacy of individuals,” said Jones. “The Missing Persons Act strikes that delicate balance by setting a high bar for access to records or search warrants. It requires that police and judicial officers carefully consider privacy issues and whether there is evidence that a person does not wish to be located.”
The Act also imposes strict guidelines on what information police may disclose about a missing person before and after they have been located.
“There are certain circumstances when a missing person may be at imminent risk of harm, or records that could be helpful in a search are destroyed in the time it takes to obtain a judicial order,” said Jones. “In such cases, police may exercise an urgent demand for records without seeking a judicial order.”
Jones said the officer would have to report the use of an urgent demand to a member of the police service designated by the Chief of Police and make reasonable efforts to notify the person whose information was accessed.
The police board, she added, would have to report publicly on the use or urgent demands by the police service.
The Ontario Government Missing Person Act was a key recommendation in the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay. The legislation is also consistent with a recommendation of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“We know that police are typically the first point of contact when a person goes missing and needs help returning home safely,” Jones noted. “I thank them, as I do the many Ontario families, for pressing the case for such an important piece of public safety legislation.”