It was a Friday morning in April, 2017, when Sergeant Jason Carrier of the Lethbridge Police Service was on a break with two fellow officers at the Chef Stella Diner in downtown Lethbridge. After Sgt. Carrier sat down, he noticed Shannon Phillips, a local NDP MLA and Environment Minister, arrive with several people.
In his spare time, Sgt. Carrier enjoyed off-roading on all-terrain vehicles in the Castle area west of the city. The government had recently created two provincial parks there and there was talk of restrictions on ATVs. Sgt. Carrier was opposed to this.
At the diner, Sgt. Carrier believed Ms. Phillips was meeting about Castle. He photographed the minister and texted it to his friend Constable Keon Woronuk, the acting sergeant on duty, who likewise opposed changes at Castle. Constable Woronuk came by for coffee and also photographed the minister. At 11 a.m., outside the diner, the two officers chatted briefly. Constable Woronuk said he “would hate to see Phillips drive away from the restaurant and there was a reason to stop her.”
Sgt. Carrier drove to a nearby parkade, where he did some work, and saw the minister leave the diner. Constable Woronuk, separately, had a “position of surveillance” in his car and then followed a person with whom Ms. Phillips had met. Constable Woronuk, despite having no lawful reason, ran that plate through a police database and sent Sgt. Carrier the information. The next day, using a fake name, Constable Woronuk posted a picture of the minister and her group at the diner on Facebook with a long caption criticizing Ms. Phillips, the government, and naming several at the table.
After the minister learned of the Facebook post, she filed a Police Act complaint. Calgary police investigated. Sgt. Carrier and Constable Woronuk received official warnings. However, Constable Woronuk omitted the fact that, as part of this little freelance surveillance operation, he’d run a plate. That discovery triggered a second investigation, this time led by the Medicine Hat police. The result was Sgt. Carrier was demoted for one year. Constable Woronuk was demoted for two years. Both are still police officers.
This case highlights some long-standing deficiencies with police oversight in Canada.
First, there’s the secrecy. The only reason we know any of this is because the 30-page decision was obtained by CHAT News in Medicine Hat. Police provided the public the demotions – but none of the key facts – about officers illegally surveilling a minister of the Crown and stalking a constituent.
Second, while Canada has civilian oversight of police, complaints of police misconduct are often referred back to the police – a problem this page highlighted last week. This case is a classic example. Calgary cops investigated first, then Medicine Hat cops. A retired Calgary police superintendent oversaw the penalty. Only as a result of a leak of internal deliberations is the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team being called in, to assess possible grounds for a criminal investigation. ASIRT is structurally independent, but of its 21 investigators, all are former cops or current officers.
Third, it’s really hard to fire a Canadian police officer. The Lethbridge decision’s discussion of appropriate punishment states Constable Woronuk’s demotion “may seem unduly harsh,” and the reprimands were the “product of discussions between the chief of police and the cited officers.” The retired Calgary police superintendent then approved the agreed-upon demotions. Last week, after it became public, the Lethbridge chief said the men had been “held accountable.”
Shouldn’t a police officer who uses his law enforcement powers to illegally spy on a minister of the Crown, and to interfere with the government for his own private interest, be dismissed from the force? In most other jobs, a severe and deliberate abuse of your employer’s trust would result in dismissal. Yet Police Acts across Canada lean to protecting police. Rehabilitation is favoured over getting rid of bad apples. That is very clear in this ruling. Five years ago, this page called for changes to punishment of police misconduct. We argued that most cops follow the rules, and it hurts everyone when problematic officers are unduly shielded. That remains true.
Premier Jason Kenney says that what happened is “completely unacceptable.” A third investigation may yet lead to stiffer penalties, but the problem is bigger than this case. Across Canada, police oversight needs three major reforms: more transparency; real civilian oversight; and serious consequences for serious transgressions.
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