Alberta must rewrite the rules for the oversight of police conduct, experts argue in the wake of a secretive disciplinary process for officers who targeted a cabinet minister.
The province’s system for investigating and disciplining police officers has been under scrutiny after a case in Lethbridge in which two officers admitted to improperly surveilling and photographing Shannon Phillips in 2017, when she was the minister of environment and parks in the NDP government. Ms. Phillips and the current government only learned of the July disciplinary decision through a local news report.
According to a copy of the decision obtained by CHAT News Today in Medicine Hat, Sergeant Jason Carrier and Constable Keon Woronuk pleaded guilty to several counts of misconduct and received temporary demotions. The document says the officers disagreed with the government’s decision to limit activities such as ATV use in newly created provincial parks.
Ms. Phillips, who had filed a complaint at the time, did not know the officers were still being investigated, let alone that there was a disciplinary hearing, because the police force told her in 2018 that the officers had received warnings and that the case was closed. She has now filed a legal challenge and wants the officers fired.
The United Conservative Party government is expected to reform police regulations, although it has been vague about the details amid worsening public distrust of law enforcement officials. Thousands of Albertans recently participated in Black Lives Matter marches against police brutality and racism – just as Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation alleged in June that RCMP officers beat him up and accosted his wife.
Now, critics are using the Phillips case to highlight what they believe is an array of problems with police transparency and discipline.
Premier Jason Kenney called the Phillips case “appalling” and said that the government is reviewing the Police Act.
“I do believe we have a good system in Alberta,” Mr. Kenney said Friday. “Perhaps it could be improved.”
The Lethbridge Police Service did not respond to a request for comment.
Trevor Harrison, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge, said Alberta should launch an inquiry into the specifics of the Phillips case, as well as broader concerns over how police define, investigate, punish and publicize misconduct. The public, for example, was unaware of the disciplinary hearing in July. The Lethbridge police department said it posted notices about the public hearing on its website. The department publishes summaries of hearing decisions but does not reveal details about incidents or the names of the officers involved.
Prof. Harrison argued that it’s a stretch for police departments to claim such generic notices qualify as public disclosure.
“It would be like saying: ‘There’s a hockey game going to be played tonight. [But] I’m not telling you this is part of the Stanley Cup playoffs,‘ ” he said.
Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said law-enforcement officials exploited regulatory gaps to keep information about the Phillips case out of the public eye.
“You’d have to be a complete numbskull not to realize that what the police were trying to do was just to suppress it,” he said. This, he said, is why lawmakers need to constantly review transparency rules and plug legislative gaps.
According to the copy of the disciplinary decision, which contains allegations that have not been tested in court, the incident began on Good Friday in 2017 at a diner in Lethbridge, where Sgt. Carrier spotted Ms. Phillips and four guests arrive.
The document says the sergeant took a photo of Ms. Phillips and her guests and sent it to Constable Woronuk, who then went to the diner and took more photos.
Sgt. Carrier had parked in a spot with a view of the diner and watched Ms. Phillips leave. Constable Woronuk followed one of her guests and conducted a licence-plate search using a national police database.
He later used a fake Facebook account to post photos taken at the diner with a caption criticizing her government’s politics.
Ms. Phillips considered some of the posts libellous and complained to the Lethbridge Police Service, which brought in the Calgary Police Service to investigate.
In 2018, Robert Davis, then the chief of the Lethbridge Police Service, sent Ms. Phillips a letter that said the officers had each received an official warning but that he had dismissed most of the allegations against them; their conduct, he had concluded, was not serious enough to warrant a hearing. The decision was final and could not be appealed, the letter said.
However, the chief did not directly address the allegation that Constable Woronuk had followed one of the guests and conducted a licence-plate search. He said he had started an investigation into actions “unrelated” to Ms. Phillips’s complaint but did not provide further details.
Medicine Hat Police Service then investigated, focusing on Constable Woronuk’s licence-plate check and Sgt. Carrier’s failure to do anything about it. CHAT News Today in Medicine Hat reported the results of their disciplinary hearing in July. The government then ordered the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which investigates police shootings and other allegations of serious misconduct, to review the case.
The rules governing police conduct vary from province to province, and the RCMP fall under separate legislation. In Ontario, for example, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), a civilian agency, handles complaints against police.
Joy Hulton, a workplace mediator with experience negotiating with police services, said that while this creates a degree of independence, the OIPRD still sends lesser infractions to neighbouring police forces to review, as happened with the Phillips case in Lethbridge.
“The OIPRD has the power to investigate,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of resources.”
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