Blacked-out bits raise questions
“’Satiable curiosity,” as Kipling called it, is one of the peculiar traits of the journalist. I have spent more hours than I can count — or should admit to — trying to decipher the usually meaningless upside-down writing on the desks of people I am interviewing. Or listening in on banal conversations to which I am not a party.
Which may explain how I came to be hunched over a spotlight last week, squinting, trying to make out what was hidden beneath the black felt-markered-out sections of the copy of the Halifax Regional Police Operational Review of the Shirley Street standoff.
Last week, I wrote about what was in the publicly released portion of that much delayed report I had received through a Freedom of Information request. It focused on the police department’s role in a controversial May 2004 incident in which heavily armed police used a battering ram to smash their way into a Halifax home in the middle of the night to execute a Children’s Aid apprehension order for an infant.
This week, I want to talk about the parts I wasn’t supposed to see.
To be fair, the police only blacked out three small sections of the 16-page report. In his cover letter to me, Deputy Chief Tony Burbridge cited two sections of the Protection of Privacy and Freedom of Information Act to justify what he described as the “severed parts of the record.” The first was that disclosing the information “would be reasonably be expected to harm law enforcement and harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques or procedures…” The second was that the information “would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.”
So, of course, I peeked. And peered. And stared. And held the documents up to the light to see what, if anything, they might reveal.
I was unable to decipher anything from two of the excisions, which were among a catalogue of what the report described as “numerous tactics… utilized in attempting to reach a successful resolution of the incident.”
But the third blacked-out section — about an incident before the stand-off when the police were still trying to find out where Carline VandenElsen had disappeared to with her baby daughter — turned out to be at least partially readable.
In the chronology, the incident occurs sometime between Feb. 23, when a Det/Cst. Webber contacted a Children’s Aid official to update her on the progress of the investigation, and Feb, 26, 2004, just three days later, when Larry Finck, the father of the little girl and husband of Carline, came to police headquarters aking to lay a complaint against Children’s Aid “for conspiracy in the abduction of his child.”
Which means that the subject of this blacked-out section occurred more than a month after police first unsuccessfully tried to enforce the apprehension order and almost two full months before police attempts to seize the child touched off a three-day SWAT team siege at the Finck home.
Here’s what I can read: “Det/Cst. Webber met with Senior Crown Attorney Frank Hoskins to discuss proceeding with —“ which is followed by a few words I can’t read — “He advised that there were insufficient grounds at this time to support prosecution. Barbara MacPherson of Children’s Aid was advised of this decision.”
Which raises an interesting question.
How does this information match up with the department’s stated explanations for refusing to disclose this particular section to me?
Surely, consulting with a Senior Crown on whether there are grounds to lay charges is commonplace police procedure, hardly the sort of top-secret investigative technique the Act is supposed to allow police to keep confidential. As for violating the privacy rights of a third party, the fact is that both the cop and Barbara MacPherson, a CAS case worker, are already identified in several sections of the report released to me. And Frank Hoskins is a public official acting in a public capacity.
So which of the stated exemptions applies in this case?
If neither do — and it appears they don’t — then why did the police decide to try to keep this small section of the report from my prying eyes?
Could it be that they simply didn’t want to publicly admit there were no grounds to lay charges against anyone in this case until police officers banged on the door in the middle of the night of May 19 and turned a family matter into a criminal case that changed the lives of all of those involved?
And what does that say about the police department’s commitment to openness and transparency?
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. In 2004, he was a member of an ad hoc citizen’s group that campaigned unsuccessfully for a public inquiry into this case. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.