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Shane Holladay was working the night shift at The Edmonton Sun on Nov. 18, 2004, when, with one ear cocked to the police radio, the cop reporter tripped across a conversation that months later would deeply divide this city.

Most major newspapers across the country use police scanners to troll for tips about breaking stories. The scanners normally crackle through messy, chaotic newsrooms with coded police chatter about killings, traffic accidents and robberies.

But on this night, at about 7 o'clock, Mr. Holladay's notebook slowly filled with bizarre clues about an apparent police plot to catch two people drink then and drive from a downtown sports bar, the Overtime Boiler & Taproom.

Nearly three months later, those first clues morphed into a full-fledged scandal this week for the Edmonton Police Service, including publication of the transcripts of the police-scanner chatter, the dismissal of the police chief and repeated calls for a public inquiry to find out what happened that November night and why.

The scandal has consumed the city and its news media outlets, and many Edmontonians do not know what or even who to believe.

The published police transcripts strongly suggest that seven officers inappropriately used their powers that night to target two people known to be critics of the police force: Edmonton Sun columnist Kerry Diotte and Martin Ignasiak, the reform-minded chairman of the civilian police commission.

Allegations abound that the police force, which one critic called a bunch of "cowboy cops," keeps an enemies' list and that the force is quickly losing public confidence.

The police commission fired Fred Rayner, who had been chief for less than a year and initially called the operation routine, shortly after he tried to take an indefinite medical leave.

Alberta Solicitor-General Harvey Cenaiko, a former Calgary police officer, voiced outrage, saying that officials at the City of Edmonton need to deal swiftly with the growing crisis and that he would agree to a public inquiry. The police commission is considering that offer as it scrambles to hire a new chief.

It is a long way from Nov. 18, when Mr. Holladay could not get his co-workers to believe what he heard was happening at the packed sports bar.

It was just four days before a provincial election, and it happened that the Canadian Association of Journalists was hosting a meet-and-greet evening for provincial politicians and local reporters in the Overtime that night.

At about 9 o'clock, Mr. Holladay called Mr. Diotte on a cellphone to tell him that police were talking about him, that they were using a code name T1 (Target One) and apparently hoped to charge him with impaired driving. Two undercover officers were watching Mr. Diotte in the bar as they spoke, Mr. Holladay warned his colleague.

"I remember saying to him something like, 'I don't believe you. It doesn't matter; I'm taking a cab home, anyway,'." Mr. Diotte recalled. The veteran city hall reporter said he figured Mr. Holladay was playing a practical joke on him because he had recently written a column that criticized a deadly high-speed police chase.

Mr. Holladay later called other Edmonton Sun reporters at the bar to help him identify the people police were talking about when they referred to T2 (Target Two). He realized it was Mr. Ignasiak, a young Edmonton lawyer, when police chatted about T2 drinking a "Guinness and talking to [Alberta NDP Leader]Brian Mason."

The police transcripts suggest that the officers involved went to great lengths in their attempts to catch the men, especially Mr. Diotte. Mr. Ignasiak and Mr. Diotte have said they were not drunk at the event.

The published transcripts show officers joking about the quality of the tip that led them to the crowded bar and discussing ways to avoid disclosing information about the operation, so if the journalist were nabbed, it would not weaken the potential criminal case against him.

When it became clear that Mr. Diotte had left the bar in a cab at about 10, an officer said that police would "tag" him "another day, another time," the transcripts show. Mr. Ignasiak also left the bar by taxi.

The next day, Mr. Diotte traded notes with Mr. Holladay and other reporters who attended the event, and "quickly things started to come together," the columnist said.

The chief, Mr. Rayner, soon launched an internal investigation into the stakeout. It was supposed to take days but it stretched into months.

On Feb. 3, Mr. Rayner held a news conference to declare that the seven officers involved in the operation had not used their extraordinary powers inappropriately; however, one was being investigated for using inappropriate language over the police radio.

The chief said that the 300-page internal review and police-radio transcripts from that night would not be released until after two senior officers faced disciplinary hearings.

His executive assistant was in trouble for issuing a cryptic news release about the stakeout, and another staffer was blamed for how he allowed the police operation to be focused on Mr. Diotte.

Three days later, The Edmonton Journal published transcripts of the police radio exchanges in its Sunday edition. On Tuesday, Mr. Rayner stepped aside on medical leave; the following night, the police commission announced his dismissal.

Many police officers, including Mr. Rayner and the president of the police union, have complained that the words and comments have been taken out of context. Mr. Rayner has also said that the stakeout was "one night that things didn't go well ..... it involves a narrow and exclusive group of individuals."

James Stribopoulos, a University of Alberta law professor who examined the police transcripts for the Journal, said he doesn't understand how anyone could misunderstand their content.

The officers' conversations clearly suggest they were "singling out people for investigation largely because of who they were," Prof. Stribopoulos said. "That's frightening."

It is predictable that the force's top brass have said the case only involves a few rogue cops, Prof. Stribopoulos said, adding that he would like to see more done to assure the public that this is the truth.

Many cities, including Saskatoon, Toronto and Vancouver, have dealt with similar serious allegations involving their police in recent years. Prof. Stribopoulos said a national body should be charged with investigating local police cases when they arise, to ensure unbiased results.

"People need to wake up to this problem," he said.

"These gradual inroads on our liberties, over time, collectively, do have an effect on the quality of life, democracy and freedom in this country."