For more than 10 years police officers in British Columbia have been quietly amassing potentially damaging personal information in a little-known database called PRIME-BC.
You don’t have to be a criminal to have a file. If you’ve phoned 911, witnessed a crime, been a suspect, or been pulled over by an officer in B.C., then your name and personal information are likely logged in the system.
More than 85 per cent of B.C.’s adult population is in PRIME-BC, officially known as Police Records Information Management Environment. Even more surprising, a growing number of employers are accessing the records and potentially ruling out job-seekers based on contacts that are “adverse” according to police.
After releasing a report Wednesday that points to the B.C. government’s flawed use of employee criminal record checks, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said the government is not accessing PRIME information — but “more and more” private companies are.
“I believe that is problematic under B.C.’s privacy laws, because that is information that has not been confirmed by judicial oversight,” Denham said Wednesday. “Adverse police contact is recorded in PRIME, and that could create a flag on a file that at the end of the day could prejudice someone from obtaining employment. I think that is a problem for the citizens of B.C., and I don’t believe PRIME should be used in an employment setting.”
The first details about PRIME-BC were released in 2010 through an annual general report issued by PRIMECorp.
Officially, the database went into operation on a pilot basis in Vancouver, Port Moody and Richmond in 2001. Yet, The Province has learned that PRIME-BC started recording individuals’ personal information for the first time in Richmond, in 1998.
It’s difficult to know what constitutes a negative contact in PRIME, because few police agencies were willing to discuss guidelines for officer reporting.
Rules on what represents “adverse police contact” on a record check vary between policing agencies, and even with various personnel completing the check.
The Abbotsford Police Department, an independent force separate from the RCMP, was most forthcoming of all departments contacted. Abbotsford will not report information on witnesses or 911 callers, but will report negative contact if an interaction was considered “chargeable.”
According to the RCMP’s operations manual, they will relay any “founded, substantiated adverse information.”
But civil liberty advocates worry that “adverse contact” boils down to individual officers giving their subjective opinions.
Former lawyer Tony Wong of Vancouver says his case shows any innocent B.C. citizen can get flagged in PRIME.
Wong says in August 2010 he was enjoying dinner with three friends at a West End sidewalk cafe when one of his party spotted an associate walking down the street and invited him to join the table. The fellow sat down for 20 minutes. Shortly after he left, police showed up at Wong’s table and wanted to see identification from everyone. The restaurant staff had apparently called police after the table guest stopped to talk to a suspected gang member as he left the restaurant.
The officers admitted they had entered all the diners' names into a police database, which would prove to be PRIME-BC.
Wong says he “didn’t know that [table guest] and I had nothing to do with that person, never met him before,” so he was shocked his personal information could be recorded in connection to a suspected gangster. He has tried unsuccessfully for two years to get the file deleted, and says he is advocating for PRIME to be reformed.
“I’d like to see that this doesn’t happen to other people,” Wong said. “The police shouldn’t arbitrarily or needlessly collect information into this database that has detrimental implications to people who have committed no crime and have done nothing wrong.”
Then there’s the case of Jose-Luis Guinea, who arrived in Canada from Peru more than 14 years ago and began working hard to build a better life for his family.
In 2008, he graduated from Kwantlen University College as a recreation co-ordinator for senior citizens. He understood that when he applied for a job he would have to submit to a pre-employment police record check. It was part of the process to screen out convicted criminals and keep them away from vulnerable clients.
Guinea was stunned when his police record check was returned to his potential employer indicating that a police file “may or may not exist” in his name. Guinea’s name had been flagged in the PRIME-BC database as having had “adverse police contact.”
“They ended my career just like that. I couldn’t get another job,” he says.
Guinea would learn, after some investigation, that his negative contact referred to an incident a year earlier when he had been visiting a friend in Richmond. The friend’s disabled daughter suffered a seizure and fell onto the sidewalk face-first. An argument ensued with the paramedics who responded and someone called the police. They attended, and recorded Guinea’s personal information, along with details of the incident, into PRIME, he says.
“It was frustrating,” Guinea said. “I knew I had done nothing wrong.”
Peter Bolten, a Parksville resident, has worked with dementia patients as a registered care aide since 1988.
He was shocked when his routine police check renewal was returned with a tick indicating he had had negative police contact.
Bolten had endured problems with his next-door neighbours for years. The situation came to a head one day when he claims the neighbour attacked him. The man’s wife also joined in the assault.
“I defended myself,” he says. “I had no choice.”
Still, he was the one charged with assault. That was dropped after he signed a peace bond and agreed to stay away from his neighbour.
“No one ever told me that this could haunt me down the road,” he said, adding he worried his career would be in jeopardy.
Despite criticism, policing agencies believe strongly in the value of the database.
“The best thing about PRIME, from my perspective, is the sharing of knowledge across North America,” says Insp. Bruce Imrie, who is in charge of informatics operational support for the RCMP.
Imrie suggests that had PRIME been available, it would have been of significant assistance in the case of Vancouver’s missing women.
“We’ve moved forward many steps thanks to PRIME and co-operation between policing agencies,” Imrie says.
Strangely, the database currently contains the names of more than five million B.C. citizens, including adults, juveniles and even infants. Yet only 4.5 million individuals reside in B.C.
“Yes, we have a problem with accuracy,” says Russell Sanderson, general manager of PRIMECorp, the corporation that supplies and manages the database for police.
He explained that “John Joseph Doe” could appear several times in the database, as John Doe, Joseph Doe, John Joseph, or even just John, Joseph or J.J.