The Alberta government is exploring the creation of an independent body to handle complaints about police — a measure many advocates have long requested.
The province's justice department has awarded a $150,000 contract to human resources consultants Norrie and Co. to study different models of independent police complaint oversight. They're supposed to report back by the end of June.
"I think Alberta has an opportunity to be leading the way in modernizing police governing in the country," Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said in an interview last week.
The change could be a welcome development to observers who say the police shouldn't be investigating themselves when accused of wrongdoing.
The consideration is part of the government's overall review of the Police Act. The province began work to modernize the more than 30-year-old legislation in 2018.
Shandro wants to table legislation this fall to update the act.
Shandro's press secretary said the current review only looks at how police complaints are handled, and not the Law Enforcement Review Board, which hears disciplinary appeals, or the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) which examines deaths or injuries involving police.
Police could be overseen by civilians, expert says
Temitope Oriola, a University of Alberta assistant professor of sociology, said Alberta should create a civilian-led, independent body where members of the public could file complaints about members of any police force.
The province is policed by a patchwork of city police services, the RCMP, Indigenous police organizations and provincial sheriffs.
Oriola spent six months advising the Alberta government on potential legislative changes last year, and attending public meetings.
He says many top-performing police agencies worldwide are overseen by independent, civilian authorities.
He pointed to police in Norway and New Zealand, who are less likely to resort to using weapons and face fewer accusations of using excessive force.
Well-functioning organizations have goals to complete investigations within reasonable timelines, to prevent allegations from hanging over officers' heads, and potentially keeping them off the streets unnecessarily, he said.
"The lethality, the firepower that police organizations have are second only to the armed forces," he said. "This has to come with a significant degree of accountability and transparency."
Most Canadian police services investigate themselves, and Alberta has a chance to be a national leader by making these changes, he said.
Oriola said Alberta should also have a public database of sworn officers with listings of any disciplinary actions they've faced.
Similar databases exist for Alberta doctors, lawyers and nurses, and the provincial government is introducing one for teachers.
Shandro wouldn't say what models the province is considering. He said one concern is that contracted police services — mostly with the RCMP — have no civilian police commission oversight.
Some citizens afraid to complain about cops
Both Edmonton and Calgary police services report receiving more than 1,000 "contacts" from the public each year, hundreds of which become formal complaints. An Edmonton police report notes that less than one per cent of public interactions with officers lead people to complain.
Yet, some people who believe an officer has acted unprofessionally, or even illegally, never complain at all.
Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton, says some members of his community feel the police don't take their reports of hate crimes seriously, or discourage them from filing formal reports. Others aren't confident speaking English. And some people come from countries where police are more threatening than helpful.
These factors dissuade some people from ever reporting misconduct, feeling the police will not believe them, he said.
He thinks a third-party organization should not only investigate police complaints, but license police officers in the province, to improve public confidence in the profession.
"If police investigate police, even if they do a proper investigation, and they come up with an outcome that is not acceptable to the public, the public will always suspect that [the Edmonton police] is just covering up," he said.
Broad desire for independent oversight
As the government gathered public feedback on the Police Act, many organizations have pushed provincial leaders to create an independent provincial body, including the Edmonton Police Commission.
City councillor Sarah Hamilton, who sits on the police commission, says the appetite for change is widespread.
"You need a third party, because you need to know that when the investigation has been completed that there's some distance between the investigator and the people being investigated," she said last week.
Although the police commission appoints a public complaints director, it's officers within the force who investigate, and the police chief decides how to resolve many cases.
Mark Neufeld, chief of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement that chiefs from across the province support the principle of creating an independent body to handle officer complaints.
"We believe there could be many benefits to both officers, as well as the public, not limited to removing perceptions of conflict of interest and standardizing procedures in a neutral setting, thus enhancing trust and confidence in the public complaint process," his statement said.