Last week, I wrote about how Canadian Ellen Richardson, who suffers from bouts of depression, was barred from entering the U.S. One of the outstanding question raised about that story was how U.S. customs agents were accessing Canadians’ suicide attempts and hospitalization records. A senior official for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency told me that they only have access to criminal and police databases, from a mutual sharing arrangement with Canada.
Well, it appears the Canadian RCMP are the ones to blame. Because for years now, the RCMP has been putting information about Canadians who attempt or even just threaten suicide into a national law enforcement database called the CPIC. Which is then shared with U.S. customs and law enforcement agencies.
Why would the RCMP want to keep track of those who threaten suicide in a law enforcement database? Is this just another example of the police discriminating against people with mental illness?
The Toronto Star once again has the story. Here’s what the RCMP had to say in their defense:
“Information related to individuals that are known to have attempted or threatened to commit suicide is collected and placed on CPIC to protect the individuals themselves, the general public and/or police officers who may come in contact with them, from possible harm,” Trottier said.
“The information allows police services to be aware of individuals that may be a danger to themselves or others.”
How often does a suicidal person threaten another person? Rarely. So rarely, in fact, that the U.S. doesn’t have the same blanket requirement.
Attempted suicide and suicide threats are not efforts to inflict violence outward. Since law enforcement professionals don’t usually have much specialized mental health training — other than to use a variety of strategies to de-escalate an emotional situation — it doesn’t seem to offer much benefit in tracking this information. Even more egregious is sharing this information with other countries.
What possible use or value is it to have a customs agent — who has even less specialized mental health training — make haphazard, off-the-cuff judgment calls about a person’s mental health as they’re trying to enter our borders? It is simply another form of discrimination against the mentally ill to have such ill-trained, ill-informed individuals given that responsibility and power. By a government official, no less.
The good news is that some Canadians are as upset as we are, and are doing something about it:
It’s one of the avenues that Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian says she is exploring, after opening an investigation last week into how a U.S. border agent became privy to private health information about Ellen Richardson, who had gone to the airport to start a vacation.
Police reports about people who attempt suicide should not be automatically put into a national database system shared with U.S. authorities, says Cavoukian.
And she’s not the only one:
At least one representative of a leading mental health organization is questioning the RCMP assertion that “leading mental health organizations’’ support adding information about potential suicides to CPIC.
“I would question that — I would like to know who those leading mental health authorities are,” said Uppala Chandrasekera, policy director with the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“Mental health information is not criminal — it should not be released,” she said. “Maybe there needs to be laws or regulations to say you can’t forward that information on,” she said.
Agreed. Mental health information is not criminal, and a suicide threat has little to do with criminality. There’s no government interest in sharing that information, not only amongst other law enforcement professionals, but internationally — with people in other countries who are using that information to discriminate.
Richardson isn’t the only one who’s been denied entry into the U.S. by a random decision made by an untrained customs agent. Canadian Amanda Box had a similar experience back in September:
But in mid-September, when she went to Pearson Airport with her American boyfriend to go to his home in Colorado for a weekend, it was a different story.
While she was standing in front of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, Box says he looked at his computer screen “and he said something about ‘mental health issues.’ Then he said, ‘Yeah, you’re really crazy.’ ’’
Box said he told her that she wasn’t being allowed to enter the U.S. and that she needed more documentation because she was considered a “flight risk. They said I might try and stay,’’ said Box, who felt upset and humiliated and shocked that someone in that position could be so rude.
She was also turned back in June of this year when she and her boyfriend were at Niagara Falls and thought they’d go across the border for dinner.
At that point, the agent put her name in the system. She was told by a border agent that she was considered a flight risk and could not enter.
“He also asked me, what medications are you on?’’
What business is it of the U.S. government to ask foreigners visiting our country what medications they are on? How is this relevant to determining whether a person can enter and visit our country legally?
These appear to be tragic examples of overzealous U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents targeting people with mental illness because they’re being given the chance to do so, thanks to the RCMP’s decision to share that information with them. Imagine if they had access to every country’s mental health records?