Alberta police watchdog at 'critical breaking point' as files languish, executive director says

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Susan Hughson, head of police watchdog ASIRT, told an Edmonton Police Commission meeting Thursday that her organization is at a
Susan Hughson, head of police watchdog ASIRT, told an Edmonton Police Commission meeting Thursday that her organization is at a

(CBC News - image credit)

Alberta's police watchdog is at a "critical breaking point" as its chronically under-resourced team continues to grapple with overdue files, its executive director told an Edmonton Police Commission meeting Thursday.

But Susan Hughson said even though she has faced this issue since 2014, she does not believe the provincial government will give the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) the additional funding it desperately needs anytime soon.

"At some point, the government is going to have to consider the mandate," Hughson said. "Because if they are not going to provide additional funding, they are going to have to pick and choose what they want us to do."

ASIRT investigates incidents where police officers may have caused serious injury or death, as well as serious or sensitive allegations of police misconduct.

Hughson and her assistant executive director refer files to Crown prosecutors if they believe there are reasonable grounds a criminal offence has been committed.

Hughson said her 30-person team is still closing files from 2018, with ASIRT's investigators "taxed to the max."

"ASIRT is now beyond capacity," she said. "We are at a critical breaking point.

"We have a file load that exceeds our ability to reasonably complete those investigations."

Confidence undermined

She said it has become increasingly difficult for ASIRT to provide timely disclosure on criminal investigations and fatality inquiries, and respond to freedom-of-information requests.

Because of her team's small size, investigations take longer to complete than they should, she said. As a result, the parties involved in them — and the public — are losing trust in the police watchdog.

"These investigations are very important to the people that they involve, to the affected persons, to the families of people who have died as a result of contact with police, and for subject officers and their families," she said.

"And to have a delay of years has untold negative impact on them," she said.

Similarly, she said, the public wants answers and "having to wait years for those answers really undermines confidence," adding the only solution is to increase ASIRT's resources.

"Does government care enough to do something?" asked Edmonton police commissioner Laurie Hawn.

Hughson was circumspect but skeptical.

"We have a government that is balancing different challenges. Right now, I don't see any changes, immediate changes, coming to ASIRT."

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee said he has been pushing the provincial government for more funding for ASIRT "from Day 1" but those considerations are now tied up in the province's ongoing review of the Police Act.

Police Act needs 'considerable revision'

Hughson also referenced the Police Act review during her presentation, saying the law needs "considerable revision" as it relates to ASIRT.

"It is interesting enough that there is no reference at all in the legislation to reporting requirements," Hughson said. "ASIRT has no statutory duty to tell anybody anything.

"It has no statutory duty to file a report to the chief, to the affected person, or to do a public release."

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

The legislation should include timelines for when police services must notify her team of incidents, she said, noting there are still problems with delayed reporting.

Hughson also said ASIRT is the only organization of its kind across Canada where the executive director is a permanent position without term limits.

"If somebody can stay with ASIRT for 20 years, I am concerned that that may not be the best thing for the organization," said Hughson, who has led the police watchdog since 2014.

Often criticized for slow investigations

Criminal defence lawyers and justice advocates have often criticized ASIRT for the pace of its investigations, saying delays effectively create a double standard for officers under investigation.

The police watchdog still has yet to release its report into the June 2019 arrest of truck thief Kyle Parkhurst, despite a Crown prosecutor's admission in court more than a year ago that Edmonton police used excessive force during Parkhurst's arrest.

A video of Parkhurst's arrest, captured by an onlooker and later shared online, showed an officer repeatedly kicking Parkhurst, who had been Tasered by that point. The officer then hauled Parkhurst to his feet and slammed him head first into a brick wall.

In June 2020 — for the first time in the organization's 11-year history — ASIRT laid criminal charges against officers involved in a fatal shooting.

Every ASIRT investigation goes through an "extremely robust review process," Hughson said. "And that is because we don't have the luxury of making a mistake."