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Devyn Ens stands outside of the Edmonton Police Service Headquarters in downtown Edmonton on May 20. She led a group that quietly pieced together documents to create the Alberta Police misconduct Database.Kelsey McMillan/The Globe and Mail

A group in Alberta is launching a public database that includes roughly 400 cases of police misconduct, which they say will strengthen accountability in a province where discipline decisions are not routinely made public.

The Alberta Police Misconduct Database, unveiled Tuesday, is the first of its kind in Canada in terms of tracking wrongdoing by law enforcement. It details incidents, such as excessive force, assault and neglect of duty, by officers over the last 30 years. Eight agencies, both urban and rural, are so far included in the searchable database but the majority of data revolves around the Edmonton Police Service, followed by the Calgary force.

Records of police misconduct are largely confidential or difficult to access unless an officer has been charged and convicted. There have long been calls for greater transparency and accountability by police, but they have grown louder in recent years, propelled in part by racial-justice movements that thundered across the globe after the murder of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality were captured on video and circulated on social media.

Led by paralegal Devyn Ens, an Edmonton-based group quietly pieced together thousands of documents to create the database. Ms. Ens said the project was prompted by a “whisper network” of lawyers who had been keeping tabs on police misconduct for years. She added the database will be updated when possible and will soon include incidents by RCMP officers.

“We’re just scratching the surface of misconduct in this province,” she said.

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Hundreds of officers are named in the database, some with multiple incidents noted under their names and badge numbers. The project took nearly two years to complete with data compiled through publicly available information, such as newspaper articles, CanLII (Canadian Legal Information Institute) decisions, disciplinary hearings, in addition to documents obtained through Freedom of Information legislation. All entries are vetted by a six-person board with expertise in law, social justice and police reform.

Temitope Oriola, a criminology professor at the University of Alberta who serves on the board, said many fields champion accountability and transparency when it comes to professional misconduct, but police organizations have been fundamentally resistant, making this database a crucial resource for the public.

“It is ordinary in the sense that it simply does what is routine in many other occupations. It is extraordinary because it is the first of its kind regarding policing in Alberta. Its significance is underscored by the fact that there is no national database of its kind in Canada,” Prof. Oriola said.

There are mechanisms aimed at police oversight in the province, such as the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team that probes cases in which an officer seriously injures or kills someone and the Law Enforcement Review Board, under the Police Act, which reviews public complaints concerning officer conduct. Internal disciplinary systems also exist within police agencies.

But Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, said existing systems of police accountability are not sufficient and rarely objective – reinforced by the fact that incidents of misconduct shows no signs of abating. They are more symbolic than substantive, he explained, especially when you consider repeat offenders.

“You have to ask what happened that this person continues to act in this way? That raises questions around supervision, internal accountability and deterrent effect of the penalties imposed,” Mr. Mukherjee said. “A searchable database allows the public to ask those questions.”

Outcomes to police misconduct are listed on the database, including if an individual was charged, acquitted or fired. Though outcomes vary, an internal disciplinary hearing by a person’s respective police agency is most common. Experts say this raises concerns of impartiality, as police are tasked with disciplining their own.

“Police officers, as a rule, don’t inform on each other and not only that, they also back up one another and if they don’t, they’ll be ostracized,” Mr. Mukherjee said. Generally speaking, Ms. Ens said the consequences tabbed in the database rarely lined up with the level of misconduct.

Alberta’s justice ministry declined to comment directly on the database, but spokesperson Joseph Dow said in a statement that the government continues to review the Police Act, which sets out rules for police oversight and how complaints against officers are handled. Kaycee Madu, in his former role as justice minister, said in 2020 that making disciplinary decisions against police officers public is “the way to go,” but no changes have yet been made.

Calgary police said in a statement ahead of the database release that they support “the use of tools and resources that are meant to educate and provide accountability and transparency, especially around tough but necessary conversations of racial discrimination within law enforcement.” The force has faced harsh public criticism on officer discipline and said itself the “system needs improvement.”

Edmonton police said in a statement that they welcome “any new mechanisms that promote understanding and awareness” but maintain that police accountability and discipline is one of the most regulated systems in Alberta – pointing to checks and balances by the province, municipalities and courts, in addition to disciplinary hearings that are open to the public.

While the database doesn’t include information on victims of police misconduct, Ms. Ens said the process of gathering the entries reinforced that Indigenous people and other racialized communities are often the target of alleged or proven police wrongdoing.

“A lot of communities have a deep mistrust of policing, the entire institution, and for good reason,” she said. “Every incident of misconduct here is a story. It’s a human being’s story.”

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