Critics say Alberta’s deputy attorney general tried to keep from becoming public a racist string of internal emails in her previous job as head of internal affairs for the Edmonton Police Service.
Critics say the judgment exercised by deputy minister Kim Armstrong in that situation raises questions about her ability to function objectively as one of the most powerful bureaucrats within Alberta Justice, responsible for the province’s prosecution system.
“I think it is very poor judgment, given her position,” said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and a world-recognized expert in police governance.
“A person in that position is supposed to be ensuring thorough investigation of alleged improper conduct - and here it is not even alleged because we have a copy of this offensive document,” he said.
“So it is just the wrong approach and I’m not sure (Armstrong) is the right person to be in a position of higher responsibility,” Walker said after reviewing the racist emails, and an email exchange between Armstrong and an Edmonton internal affairs detective.
In an emailed statement, Armstrong declined to comment on the case because she said the emails in question were not publicly released under freedom of information.
But Armstrong said that, “in the approximately five years that I was in charge of Professional Standards for the Edmonton Police Service I conducted myself with integrity 100% of the time.
“In all investigations I diligently ensured that everyone who could lawfully be prosecuted was prosecuted. That was my responsibility and I fulfilled it. I find any suggestion otherwise is inappropriate and untruthful and defamatory.”
Const. Scott Carter wrote the racist email as an intended joke while he was on duty in October 2002 and distributed it to officers in downtown division. Some of those officers edited the email with their own comments and forwarded it on. The email circulated for three years, until June 2005.
Entitled Mr. Socko’s 10 Principals (sic) of Downtown Policing, the email included statements such as “an ‘aboriginal’ is just an Indian.” It referred to the EPS van used to transport mostly aboriginal street people as “the Mobile Native Friendship Center.”
Carter told fellow officers in the email that, “in order to colour an otherwise boring police report, repeatedly use words like ‘Tranny’ and ‘Whore’” even if they had nothing to do with the investigation.
Carter wrote that “all the best ‘investigations’ end in a brawl.” He encouraged his fellow officers to discourage complaints and file “vague, but wordy” arrest reports.
Daryl da Costa, who was then acting police chief, sent a memo to all 1,400 EPS members on June 9, 2005. He told them the e-mail was “racist, discriminatory, disgusting and offensive” and that he had ordered an internal investigation. An Edmonton Journal reporter obtained the memo and published a story, which caused public outrage, especially among native groups.
Although da Costa told officers in the memo that the EPS had “zero tolerance” for racism, there was never a disciplinary hearing. Instead, Carter was given an official warning for discreditable conduct and insubordination, which remained on his file for three years. The EPS refused to publicly release the email.
Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel appealed to the Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB) on behalf of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association.
In the hearing that followed, email exchanges between Armstrong and internal affairs Det. Terry Briscoe were entered into evidence.
In one email, Briscoe told Armstrong that “my anxiety level is near capacity right now. I am scared to death that Mr. (Tom) Engel is going to get a copy of the ‘Socko’ email. The media circus will be unreal.”
Armstrong told Briscoe all email accounts should be checked to see if the racist email was forwarded because she was “VERY worried about the scrutiny that this investigation will be subjected to.”
In another email, Armstrong told Briscoe: “I am not at all worried if (the police officers) have deleted them and the trail is dead - that is OK. I just want to make sure we follow the trail to the end. Make sense?”
Engel said it was obvious to him during the hearing that Armstrong had not intended to properly investigate the case.
“To me it was a deliberate attempt to subvert the process,” he said.
“I wouldn’t even call it, ‘You made a mistake, it was a bad judgment error.’ It is just wrong. It was ethically wrong. It violated the principles underlying civilian oversight, which are enshrined in the Police Act and in police service regulations. It was just outrageous, really.”
In its ruling, the LERB said it was “concerned that it could appear that the sole concern of the EPS was to try to hide the fact that the email had ever existed or been sent.
"Comments were made in various emails about trying to keep the lid on things and what the potential fallout would be if the email was ever released to the public," board chair John Phillips wrote.
Phillips also expressed the board's concern that the investigation was incomplete and that the police service didn't appear to have considered the impact of one of its constables sending a racist email using the force's computer system.
Walker, the police governance expert, found the email exchanges with Armstrong troubling.
“On the part of Kim Armstrong, it shows an interest in burying this whole case rather than making it open to disclosure and further investigation,” Walker said.
“They really want to cover it up,” he said, adding that the actions of Briscoe and Armstrong were “contrary to the whole notion of accountability and transparency.”
Walker said the Mr. Socko email was “truly, profoundly offensive” and Armstrong did not appear to deal with the issue appropriately. And that raised concerns for him about how Armstrong will fulfill her duties as deputy solicitor general.
“I have very serious concerns about her really pursuing allegations thoroughly and fairly and ensuring that high standards are maintained,” he said.