Alberta’s Justice Minister says he supports making disciplinary decisions against police officers public – an issue that he says will be part of the government’s review of the province’s policing legislation.
The United Conservative Party government is reviewing Alberta’s Police Act, which sets out rules for police oversight and how complaints against officers are handled. Currently, all but the most serious cases are investigated either by an officer’s own department or by another police force and the resulting decisions, including the names of the officers and what they are alleged to have done, are not automatically released to the public.
A recent case involving two officers in Lethbridge who were disciplined for improperly conducting surveillance on then-NDP environment minister Shannon Phillips over a policy disagreement underscored the lack of transparency in the current system. The officers, whose conduct was reviewed by the Calgary and Medicine Hat police departments, received temporary demotions. The decision came to light through a local media report.
Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, a lawyer who was appointed to the portfolio last month, said such decisions should be released.
“I agree that once a decision is made and the process is complete and an outcome has been reached, I don’t foresee a problem why it should not be made public," he told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
“Making sure we have the right structure that allows for the release of the disciplinary outcomes is the way to go.”
Mr. Madu compared the issue to employment standards investigations and complaints to the labour relations board, where resulting decisions are public documents and easy to access.
Under the current law, the police chief determines how a complaint is handled. That could include attempting to resolve it through an informal dispute resolution process, dismissing the complaint, imposing discipline on an officer or, in more serious cases, referring the complaint to a disciplinary hearing. Such hearings are overseen by a retired senior police officer or retired judge.
While disciplinary decisions can be obtained by filing a freedom of information request, they are not made public as a matter of course. Instead, police forces publish limited information about the process.
In Lethbridge, the case involving Ms. Phillips was summarized on the force’s website with a list of charges against the officers and their punishment but did not include the officers' names, any details about what happened or the fact that it involved a former cabinet minister.
Calgary’s police department publishes yearly reports that provide brief, one-sentence summaries of complaints and disciplinary decisions, also without the officers’ names. The 2019 report was released in June of this year.
The Edmonton Police Service publishes a list of decisions that are available to request, but no details other than the date of the decision and the broad category of offence, such as “discreditable conduct.” The officers' names are not included.
Mr. Madu’s predecessor, Doug Schweitzer, who was recently shuffled to the Ministry of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, only learned about the Lethbridge disciplinary decision when it was obtained by CHAT News Today in Medicine Hat. Mr. Schweitzer immediately ordered the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which investigates cases in which an officer seriously injures or kills someone or other sensitive complaints, to review the case.
In the Lethbridge complaint, two officers spotted Ms. Phillips meeting with several people in a local diner and took photos of her, which one of the officers later posted to Facebook with a disparaging caption. The officers objected to the NDP government’s decision to turn popular recreation areas into provincial parks.
After leaving the diner, one of the officers sat in his car catching up on paperwork and saw Ms. Phillips leave. The other officer followed an associate of Ms. Phillips and used a national police database to conduct a search of that person’s licence plate.
Sergeant Jason Carrier and Constable Keon Woronuk pleaded guilty to several counts of misconduct and received temporary demotions, including cuts to their salaries.
Ms. Phillips has called for the officers to be fired.
Kathleen Ganley, the justice critic for the NDP, which has been in Opposition since last year’s election, said she agrees that the system needs more transparency, although she cautioned that it may not make sense to make every police complaint public.
“I don’t necessarily think that every complaint should become public, because that is potentially problematic for the person complaining and potentially problematic for officers in different ways,” she said.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.