Five police officers in Lethbridge, Alta., — including one who was already disciplined for spying on a local cabinet minister — have been suspended with pay as part of an investigation into the circulation of inappropriate images, according to an email obtained by CBC News.
The investigation has been dubbed internally as "MemeGate," according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Several memes were circulated among Lethbridge Police Service officers which were disrespectful to LPS brass and NDP MLA Shannon Phillips, who was the minister of environment and parks at the time, according to those sources, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity.
The investigation began in 2018. Last week, Lethbridge police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh sent an all-staff email announcing the suspensions.
"As of today, five employees have been relieved of their duties," wrote Mehdizadeh.
"This file will be damaging to LPS, however, we need to ensure transparency in the process for public interest and also the integrity of the organization."
This is the latest revelation involving Phillips and the Lethbridge police.
One of the suspended officers is Const. Keon Woronuk, who is also one of two officers recently disciplined for a 2018 spying incident involving Phillips.
Last week, CBC News reported that five other officers — including a deputy chief and a staff sergeant — and a civilian employee accessed Phillips' personal information on police databases when she was environment minister with no apparent investigative justification, according to internal documents.
Edmonton police are handling the investigation, which involved allegations of discreditable conduct, insubordination and neglect of duty, according to sources with knowledge of the case.
CBC News has not viewed any of the memes but some have been described by those who have.
They are purportedly a series of photos distributed by a group deemed the "meme militia."
Several involved the faces of then-Chief Rob Davis and Deputy Chief Scott Woods placed onto various images including some from the Toy Story movies. Davis was depicted as Buzz Lightyear while Woods was Woody.
The images involved criticisms of the leaders and have been described by police employees as humiliating, offensive and toxic.
According to sources, some of the memes were posted and circulated on work-issued phones and while officers were on duty.
'Rough times' ahead
Sgt. Jason Moulton is also suspended as part of the meme investigation. In 2019, Moulton filed several previous complaints against Deputy Chief Scott Woods, the most recent of which was dismissed last June.
A third officer identified as being suspended in connection with the meme investigation is Const. David Easter, who has twice been charged with assault.
Easter was found not guilty of his 2014 charge.
Last year, he was suspended without pay from August 2020 to December 2020 when his most recent assault charge was dropped.
According to a news release, LPS said they would not be discussing the names of those being investigated or any evidence before it was introduced at the hearing "to protect the integrity of the hearing process."
In his email, the chief advised employees that the service would be going through "some rough times."
Mehdizadeh said he would ensure the five suspended officers "have the support they need as they navigate through the process."
The chief said he would be taking a "balanced approach to move on with this file" and that the "severity" of the file would be considered.
Phillips spying incident
The Lethbridge Police Service has seen its share of controversy recently.
Two officers — Woronuk and Sgt. Jason Carrier — were recently disciplined for spying involving Phillips.
Woronuk and Carrier photographed Phillips as she met two people at a Lethbridge diner. The photos were posted online with a caption reading "everyone's favourite hypocrite."
After the meal, Woronuk ran a search on the licence plate of Phillips' guests and attempted to follow them before he lost the vehicle at a red light.
Woronuk and Carrier are off-road enthusiasts who opposed the then NDP government's plan for phasing out off-highway vehicle use on designated trails in Castle Provincial Park.
Both officers were disciplined and demoted for their misconduct.
Phillips is appealing after the Law Enforcement Review Board called the disciplinary process "tainted, flawed and grossly inadequate."
Mehdizadeh called the allegations against the force's employees who accessed Phillips' personal information on police databases "very serious" and said he was committed to fully co-operating with Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) investigators, who are looking into it.
Justice minister's call for action
The force also came under recent scrutiny when CBC News reported that a retired LPS inspector, who was head of a victims advocacy group, had a sexual relationship with a client — a domestic violence survivor — who said their relationship was not consensual.
When the woman went to the police service to complain, the man's friends and former colleagues were initially assigned to investigate him — with the woman saying they were dismissive and that she worried about potential conflict of interest.
Coaldale RCMP is now in charge of that investigation.
With all the recent controversy, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu got involved last week.
Madu met with the chief and chair of the police commission on Tuesday. Following that meeting, Madu said he expected immediate action to be taken in light of officer misconduct allegations and was considering government intervention if the follow-through by the Lethbridge Police Service wasn't satisfactory.