Calgary's police chief says the service is looking for new ways to keep undercover police officers safe after photos of an officer and members of his family were found in the hands of someone with ties to an organized crime group.

"Police officers' lives are difficult enough, they're dangerous enough out on the street without having to worry about the safety of your family," Police Chief Rick Hanson said.

"That organized crime groups have information about our officers is something to be deeply concerned about," he adds.

Hanson says it may seem like the stuff movies are made of, but organized crime in Calgary is a very real problem.

"Anybody that thinks that Canada doesn't have dangerous, dangerous organized crime groups — complete with people who are killers, people who will do contract hits, people who basically don't care about rules in society — ... it is in Canada, it is in Calgary," Hanson says.

The Calgary Police Service (CPS) recently began working with the Crown prosecutor's office to request stricter publication bans to protect the undercover officers working to infiltrate the world of organized crime.

Last month a judge granted one such application, agreeing to ban the publication of all undercover officers' real names — unprecedented in Calgary.

Officers face danger

Hanson says the better protection is necessary because the undercover police, who work closely in and around organized crime groups, can easily become the target of criminals who fear the intelligence gathered by an operative will be harmful to them or their associates.

In other cases, undercover officers get targeted for acts of revenge, says Hanson.

"They're putting themselves at risk not just while they're on duty but because sometimes they're creating evidence which these organized crime groups know could put them away," says Hanson.

"It's occasionally in their best interests to try to do anything they can to remove that threat and in the case of that threat being a police officer, it's a high risk."

As a former undercover officer with the RCMP, Chris Mathers says it's troubling to hear that the identity of an officer was compromised.

"The threat of violence is probably the thing that is the most debilitating for undercover operators. There's always the chance they'll be exposed," says Mathers.

"It's not the kind of work that you get into if you're faint of heart."

Mathers supports the push for broader publication bans, but cautions against sweeping applications that could be seen by a judge as too ambitious.

"The danger here is if you attempt to cast too wide a net with your publication ban the judge may not grant it," Mathers says.

"I think you have to be very circumspect when you're deciding what information can be released and what cannot be."

The evidence gathered during undercover operations is often crucial laying charges and nailing down a conviction once matters make it to court, Hanson says.

Several recent major crime convictions in Calgary involved undercover operations — a point of pride for the police chief but also a frustration, he says.

"Every time there's a conviction in court for a serious offense, people just go, 'Well that's what we expect the police to do,' instead of understanding the immense amount of work and the incredible effort that went into that to ensure that one more person has been taken off the street and that society is protected from that person at least for a little while," Hanson says.

Bar set high for convictions

In Canada, the threshold to get a conviction on a serious crime is among the highest in the world. That means police here have to work even harder to gather evidence, Hanson says.

"It takes a lot of effort on the part of police officers working within the system that is now, after many years designed to protect the rights of the murderer, the rapist, the serial killer as opposed to society’s, need to be protected," Hanson says.

"We've accepted that challenge but what that has done is put our police officers at a far higher level of risk," he says.

CPS already educates its officers about who they provide personal information, such as phone numbers and addresses, but social media poses a new problem.

As junior officers coming up the ranks express interest in joining an undercover unit, Hanson says police have to recruit carefully, since it has become so rare for a young person to have a clean slate in cyberspace.

That online history can become a danger once an undercover operation is finished and the officer gives testimony in open court, Hanson says.