Edmonton police policy of not naming murder victims stands alone in Alberta

Of the biggest three police forces in Alberta, Edmonton is the only one regularly withholding the names of homicide victims. A law professor urges EPS to rethink its policy.

'We have a very long and robust tradition of open access ... This is really a move against that'

Homicide scene in January 2017, a week before new EPS policy. Two victims in this case were named. (CBC)

The Edmonton Police Service stands alone among the province's three largest police forces with its decision to withhold the identities of homicide victims.

The practice began in January 2017 and is in sharp contrast to the approach used by the RCMP and the Calgary Police Service.

Edmonton police have refused to release victims' names in eight of this year's 17 homicides (a 47-per-cent withholding rate). Alberta RCMP have held back the victims' names in two of its 14 homicide files (14 per cent).  

There have been four homicides in Calgary so far this year. The Calgary Police Service has identified all of the victims.

"Our policy has always been with homicides, because there is such compelling public interest, that we do release the name," said CPS spokesperson Emma Poole. 

"I've been here for over 10 years and there's been very few, if any, that I can recall where we haven't."

Poole said homicide investigators sometimes take identification a step further.

"Sometimes we actually seek permission from the family to put out a photo because we know that putting a face and a name to a tragedy or to a homicide will often compel people to come forward with information," she said.

'It's a question of public trust' 

University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney is baffled by the new EPS approach.
University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney (CBC)

"We have a very long and robust tradition of open access, transparency and accountability when it comes to the criminal justice system in Canada," Penney said. "This is really a move away against that."

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht said sometimes police hold back the victim's name at the family's request.  

Penney said he understands the rationale but called it a short-term and narrow approach. He urged Edmonton police to look at the bigger picture and the public's right to know.

"This isn't just sensationalism or the media attempting to sell stories," he said. "It's a question of public trust, accountability and transparency. To have one body within the province deciding whether or not it's in the public interest to release a name I think goes against those principles of transparency and accountability."

Privacy legislation

The law professor thinks EPS has misinterpreted privacy legislation.  

"In my view the act clearly authorizes and permits the disclosure of this information," Penney said.  

"Either because it's already publicly available in court documents or because it's in the public interest for the community to know when there has been a homicide and who was involved in that homicide."

Poole said she consulted the CPS's freedom of information and privacy lawyer about this issue given the headlines being generated in Edmonton about naming homicide victims.

"He came back saying there is a compelling public interest in homicide cases. And unless there's a particular circumstance that would override that, our practice is appropriate," she said.  

"So as far as I'm concerned, we don't have any plans to change that in the near future."

Police Commission to ask EPS about new policy

The news stories have also attracted the attention of Edmonton Police Commission chair Cathy Palmer.  

She said the topic will be on the agenda at an upcoming closed-door professional standards committee meeting.  

"We'll discuss it at committee and it  most likely will come back as a topic for information for the commission as a whole in May," Palmer said.

Palmer called it a "complex issue."

"We trust the police," she said. "But we are also mindful of the public's balance with the need to know and a victim's right to privacy."