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Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh speaks during a news conference in Lethbridge on March 10.DBRossiter/The Canadian Press

There comes a point at which the rot in an organization is so pervasive, so putrid, that the remaining bits of healthy flesh that persist therein simply cease to matter. All that anyone in its vicinity can smell is decay – sleaze, malfeasance, impropriety – and all they can see is a closing of ranks when that decay starts to seep out. Over and over again, the public is assured that the infection will be cleaned out and treated; over and over again, the body seems to manage to avoid doing the hard work of healing.

In the case of the Lethbridge Police Service, which has been suffering with an illness of reputation for some time, the promises to do better seem endless. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the necrotic disease is terminal.

In March, five officers were suspended after an investigation dating back to 2018, wherein members were accused of internally circulating inappropriate images and offensive memes that targeted LPS brass, among others. Three officers have since pleaded guilty to misconduct, and two plan to retire.

Before that, in May of 2020, three officers responded to a 911 call of a person in a Star Wars costume carrying a gun; they forced a teen dressed as a stormtrooper to the ground outside a space-themed restaurant, bloodying her nose, even after she dropped her toy weapon. A video of the incident went viral. (The officers were cleared of professional misconduct under Alberta’s Police Act and not disciplined.)

And before even that, in 2017, two Lethbridge officers surveilled and photographed a meeting held by Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips, then Alberta’s environment minister, because they disagreed with plans by the NDP government of the day to restrict off-road vehicle use. One of the officers followed and ran the plates of a conservationist Ms. Phillips met with at that session, though he had no legal right to do so. Ms. Phillips had to make a Freedom of Information request to find answers, and subsequently learned the privacy violations went beyond those two officers, who were temporarily demoted; in 2018, five different LPS officers and one civilian employee searched her name in the police’s database eight times, without investigative justification.

In September of this year, a lawyer representing both Ms. Phillips and a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a former LPS inspector claimed that whistleblower letters he received in June included “a suggestion of a potential plan to retaliation” by LPS members against Ms. Phillips and a CBC journalist who had reported on the sexual-assault allegations. The lawyer called for a public inquiry.

But this past Monday, the Lethbridge Police Commission – a technically independent civilian oversight body that happens to include a city councillor who is a former LPS chief and the father of a current LPS constable, according to independent journalist Kim Siever – denied the inquiry request.

The commission argued that the whistleblower’s allegations “lack any substantive supporting details” and that “anonymous communications lack specific information that definitively confirms they originate from LPS employees.” One could counter that a public inquiry might be precisely the vehicle to investigate both the origin of the letters and any supporting details – the kind of open and transparent forum that’s needed when an organization is suffering from a crisis of public confidence. But no, the commission’s decision appears to be final, and it has stated it will offer no further comment on the matter.

So after the rot leak come the promises. In March of this year, when negative stories about this meme-making, politician-stalking and allegedly sexually crude and irresponsible police force reached a fever pitch, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu threatened to abolish the force altogether unless it could come up with a credible action plan for reform. That was undoubtedly a tall task, especially for an organization with a culture so seemingly broken that instances of misconduct emerged only after anonymous letters and Freedom of Information requests. When the LPS provided Mr. Madu its plan in April, the minister deemed it insufficient and said he was “disappointed” with the result. And then the force was given yet another chance to do better – which seems to be something of a theme.

Like all police officers, members of the LPS take an oath to serve and protect the public, not each other. That vow, however, seems to become iffy in Lethbridge when a member of the public does something an officer doesn’t like. Indeed, three years after those revelations about unjustified database searches into Ms. Phillips, yet another LPS officer was suspended this past April after illegally searching the name of the woman who had made the sexual assault allegation.

And so for now, with the threat of a public inquiry quieted and the political heat on a lower boil, Lethbridge police look ready to carry on with the façade that it is operating in service to the public, and not itself – with its toxic culture covered up by little more than a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid.

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