The Chatham-Kent Police Service has amended its policy of requiring women to remove their bras while in police custody from a blanket policy to a case-by-case basis, effective July 25.
Responding to a decision by Justice Lucy Glenn on July 14 to dismiss an impaired driving charge from March 7, 2015, where the accused Chatham woman’s lawyer said her rights were violated by being asked to remove her bra, Chief Gary Conn it was a “catalyst for us to review our policies and procedures.”
A second woman arrested for mischief and dangerous driving after allegedly side swiping her ex-boyfriend’s car several times in July also complained to the media about having to remove her bra while in custody.
The policy previously was that any item which could be used as a ligature – such as necklaces, ties, shoelaces and bras – were removed from any accused person in police custody, no exceptions.
“As a result of this, we reviewed all our policies and procedures and now for undergarments, which includes bras, if the sergeant lodging the prisoner has independent grounds to believe that the undergarments could possibly be used to self-harm or harm another person, man or woman, then these may be removed and stored in accordance with our procedures surrounding other property,” Conn explained in an interview with The Voice.
With the amended policy requiring sergeants to explain why they felt a prisoner needs to remove items such as a bra, Conn said they have to specify the grounds, such as if a person is known to have suicidal tendencies, has a violent disposition, has made threats to harm themselves both past or present, or if they are flagged in the system as possibly suicidal. These would warrant grounds for removal of undergarments, both at headquarters and while at court while in police custody.
Conn said common law allows police to seize and hold any item that may cause harm to themselves or an officer until the accused is released from custody, and the main reasons why are to prevent escape, preserve evidence and most importantly, for everyone’s safety.
“There is a high liability attached to our officers and our service once a person is placed under arrest and is in our custody, and we may have a situation where we have competing rights – safety versus dignity,” Conn said. “Naturally, we should always strive to provide both, however, if the situation doesn’t allow that both are going to be provided to the utmost degree, then safety has to take precedence.”
The Chatham woman arrested for impaired was wearing a long-sleeved brown sweater and track pants, according to Conn, and was told by a female sergeant she would have to remove her bra. She was taken into a room with no video camera and the female sergeant asked for her bra, which the accused took off without taking off her shirt and handed it to the officer. She was given the option of wearing a full-cover blue jumpsuit over her clothes, but declined the offer.
“In this particular case, our primary concern was safety and the taking of clothing that could be used as a ligature for self-harm or strangulation,” Conn explained. “Our history has shown that we have had hanging attempts in our cells and one in particular where a woman used her bra to hang herself, and thankfully, a sergeant and constable performed CPR and revived her. So, obviously, based on past experience we are very cautious. We may be even more cautious than others when it comes to this issue.
“I want to emphasize the fact that both of these individuals were handled with the utmost dignity. We take training surrounding this issue very seriously,” Conn noted. “Our officers are provided sensitivity training at the Ontario Police College, also during recruit orientation training when they return from the college, and also with some our professional partners such as the Sexual Assault and Crisis Centre as well as Victim’s Services, which is provided to all our officers during our annual in-service training.”
With the new policy now in effect and communicated to all members of the service, Conn said safety of prisoners in custody and officers will continue to be a priority, and he has offered the video of the booking process for viewing once the 30-day period for the Crown Attorney’s office to appeal Justice Glenn’s decision has passed to emphasize that officers involved treated the accused with professionalism and courtesy.
“If some media outlets or the court of public opinion is going criticize us for, in this particular case, seizing her bra, then I’m glad that we are being criticized for erring on the side of caution and having her safety as our primary concern,” Conn said. “I would sooner have some of the media headlines we’ve received versus one that reads, ‘Prisoner found dead and police negligent for ensuring their safety while in their custody.’”