ASIRT, Alberta cops keeping close eye on B.C. and Ontario oversight fights
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ASIRT, Alberta cops keeping close eye on B.C. and Ontario oversight fights

The head of Alberta’s police watchdog is watching with “growing concern” as similar agencies in British Columbia and Ontario face rising pushback from the officers they investigate.

In B.C., two investigations into alleged police misconduct have been put on hold because officers refused to cooperate with the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the civilian agency that probes incidents where police kill or seriously injure civilians.

On the other side of the country, an Ontario judge is recommending fines and even jail sentences for officers who don’t cooperate with the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) has so far avoided the increasingly acrimonious relationship between civilian oversight agencies and police in those provinces.

However, “that is not to say that ASIRT has not watched what has been happening in other provinces with growing concern,” ASIRT executive director Susan Hughson said in a statement to the Edmonton Journal.

Kelly Sundberg, a criminology professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the tensions between cops and watchdogs in other provinces could have implications for Alberta.  

“Is Alberta in jeopardy of seeing the cleavage we’re seeing in B.C. and Ontario?” he asked. “The tension isn’t even close to what we’re seeing in B.C. … But there’s tension, there is tension.” 

Cops and watchdogs  

The ASIRT launched in 2008 to investigate police misconduct, including cases where law enforcement officers kill or injure civilians.

Since then, the agency has handled 402 files, 116 involving Edmonton police. Twenty-six ASIRT investigations have resulted in charges against an officer, six of them from the EPS.

Unlike B.C., ASIRT has not seen any cases delayed because officers refused to cooperate. Officers under ASIRT scrutiny have “almost without exception“ cooperated with investigators probing use of force and misconduct cases, Hughson said.

Hughson declined an interview and did not specify cases where officers have not cooperated. But there have been exceptions, including two Edmonton police officers who were disciplined in 2015 for lying about steroid use to ASIRT investigators. 

Across the Rockies, tensions between the Vancouver Police Department and civilian investigators are spilling into the open.

The IIO was created in 2012, in part a response to the 2007 case of Robert Dziekanski who died after RCMP used a Taser on him during an arrest.

The agency is in a court fight with Vancouver officers who have refused interviews with civilian investigators. Chief Adam Palmer, who is named in a B.C. Supreme Court complaint filed against seven officers who witnessed a deadly police shooting after a robbery at a Canadian Tire, accused the agency of a “lack of investigative competence” in a letter obtained by media.

The officers refused to be interviewed by civilian investigators without being allowed to first view security camera and cellphone footage related to the case.

IIO investigators say allowing officers to review the video would distort their memory of the case, but police say it would help the officers recall a traumatic call.

The VPD and IIO declined to comment, saying the case is before the courts.

Uncooperative cops?

ASIRT and the IIO have similar mandates and operating structures, Sundberg said, so the difference might come down to people.

All 20 ASIRT investigators are former police officers, compared to around half of investigators in the B.C. office. The rest are recruited from non-law enforcement fields, including forensics experts, coroners, fraud investigators and the military.

IIO spokesperson Marten Youssef said part of the goal is to “debunk” the perception that police oversight agencies are former cops investigating current cops.

“It increases the public’s confidence in the police,” he said. 

ASIRT investigators, meanwhile, are “some of the most seasoned homicide detectives that were with Edmonton and Calgary,” Sundberg said, and they’re generally well-regarded among officers.

Bob Walsh, interim president of the Edmonton Police Association, said officers have had “trials and tribulations” with the agency but are generally on good terms.

Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht also praised ASIRT. 

“The ASIRT model is a very good model,” he said when asked about the tensions in B.C. “Is it sometimes a consequence of personalities? To a degree yes. I think the personalities make it work.

“But I think (ASIRT) was sold as a model that respects the rights of a police officer that’s accused of a crime or is accused of wrongdoing. So it’s working very well.”

Les Kaminski, head of the Calgary Police Association, has a different perspective.

Kaminski is facing a charge of assault and a charge of perjury after an ASIRT investigation into a 2008 traffic stop of a Hells Angel member.

Like the VPD witness officers, Kaminski has concerns about how officers are allowed to disclose information when they are under investigation.

“I think these issues are going to percolate to the surface, there’s no doubt,” Kaminski said.

He thinks officers under investigation by ASIRT should be able to offer proffered statements, a type of conditional statement that is not admissible in court and protects officers against jeopardizing themselves in future court and disciplinary hearings.   

ASIRT disagrees. In March, Hughson said in a statement that proffered statements could be seen as an “unfair advantage” afforded to police officers. But Kaminski said proffered statements would protect officers from jeopardizing themselves in potential court and disciplinary actions outside of ASIRT.

“We just want there to be a fair process so police officers can actually provide the information, but also have some protection,” he said. 

Hughson said that officers cannot be forced to speak and have a constitutionally protected right to remain silent.

“So those subject officers who decline to provide a statement cannot and should not be considered uncooperative,” she said.

But widespread silence on the part of officers could have a “devastating impact on public confidence in policing.”

“It will make no sense to the ordinary person why police services and police officers would stymie independent, full, fair and properly conducted investigations unless it was to hide something,” Hughson said.

—with files from Postmedia

jwakefield@postmedia.com

source : Calgary SUN
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