'Incredibly frustrating': Safety gaps persist years after parole officer's murder, audit finds
Warning: This story contains graphic content
More than a decade after the gruesome murder of a federal parole officer during a home visit led to sweeping safety reform promises, a new audit finds that key security gaps persist in protections for front-line staff.
The review of Correctional Service Canada's policies, practices and properties finds significant progress over the years but flags a series of security gaps that put parole officers at unnecessary risk.
"While management is using available information on community staff safety to develop procedures and improve policies and initiatives, recurring staff safety related issues remain unaddressed," the report reads.
The internal audit found inadequate communications equipment in rural and remote areas, confusion over who should be monitoring the whereabouts of staff at risk, and insufficient sharing of intelligence and security information. It also flagged unsafe physical office layouts and a lack of refresher training on safety issues.
11 years after 'brutal' murder
Completed in January and recently posted online, the report comes 11 years after a board of investigation into the death of Louise Pargeter, released in March 2006, made dozens of recommendations to strengthen staff safety.
Eli Ulayuk pleaded guilty in Yellowknife to second-degree murder for the October 2004 killing of Pargeter, a 34-year-old mother and Calgary native, and was sentenced to life in prison for a crime the judge called "brutal and vile."
The court heard Ulayuk, who had been on parole for a 1988 manslaughter conviction, bludgeoned Pargeter five times with a hammer, strangled her with twine and then sexually violated her dead body.
Alone and unarmed
Pargeter was alone and unarmed at the time of the home visit. Subsequent policy changes required "tandem" deployments when the offender has a history of sexual or violent crime.
But exceptions are made in certain conditions, and the audit found "overrides" were used in many cases, including some that were justified because the profile of the officer (such as being male or female) didn't match the profile of the offender's victim.
"The override can impact the safety of other staff members interacting with the offender in the community, including social workers, mental health nurses and reintegration officers," the report reads.
There are 92 parole offices and about 1,500 staff interacting with 8,000 offenders in offices, community correctional centres or at the parolee's home or place of work.
The audit found 141 community security incidents reported between June 2012 and April 2015, including 47 that directly endangered a staff member's safety. Reportable incidents include death or injury, forcible confinement or hostage-taking, or incidents that are expected to generate significant media or ministerial attention.
Anne Lynagh, Pargeter's partner at the time of her death, said CSC takes a reactive instead of a proactive approach to security incidents, spending more on investigations to figure out what went wrong than on investments to prevent security incidents.
"It's incredibly frustrating," she said. "They must have spent millions of dollars on the board of investigation for Louise, and every recommendation that was there has been mirrored in other murders and deaths in the country from time immemorial."
Lynagh said there appears to be no accountability, penalties or follow-up actions after security incidents occur.
"The more you look, the more frightening it is. It's like any government department: there's a problem, it's in the glare of the public eye, then the department says, 'Yes we messed up we'll do better. Trust us.' They make a few changes ... but really nothing has changed. It's like the RCMP."
Call for technological tools
Stan Stapleton, national president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees, which represents parole officers, said investments in technology, such as GPS tracking devices and panic alarms, could dramatically improve safety for parole officers.
"If they could bring in those types of tools, that would be helpful, but that's an expensive proposition and without the resources it's just not doable. At least that's what Corrections tells us," he said.
Despite many new measures to strengthen the system, Stapleton said financial cutbacks have led to shortcuts and gaps.
"We need more parole officers in the community. There is absolutely no doubt about that," he said. "We need it, not only to do the work, but for their safety and the safety of the public."
NDP Public Safety critic Matthew Dubé hopes this report serves as a wake-up call for the federal government to take more action to address safety concerns and enhance supports for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"While we drag our feet in Parliament, incidents are still happening and there are consequences afterward. Obviously the most tragic is the death of an officer, but there are other repercussions that can affect an officer's mental health," he said.
"It's cause for concern and it should push us back more urgently, because while many issues in politics can take a long time to resolve, this is a safety issue that has long-term repercussions on health in the workplace for these officers."
The audit also found failures in the critical sign-in, sign-out system to track parole officers going into the community to meet with a potentially dangerous offender.
In some cases, there is confusion over who is responsible for monitoring staff whereabouts, and in other cases supervisors said the busy workload would limit their ability to respond if an employee was missing.
Other findings in the audit:
- Threat assessments for community offices were not being completed or updated and the physical layout of parole offices don't always provide a full sightline from the reception desk. Guidelines require an office configuration where staff can make a safe exit, yet the majority of parole officer offices (70 per cent of those visited) were configured in a way that had the offender seated between the parole officer and the door.
- While most staff working with offenders carried cell phones and most offices had alarm systems, the audit raised concerns about whether systems were tested for functionality. It found cell and satellite phones did not always provide coverage in rural and remote areas.
- Threat and risk assessments for community offices weren't being completed and kept up to date as required, which means staff may be unaware of current conditions that may jeopardize their own safety.
CSC says it agrees with the findings and has prepared a management action plan to respond. That plan is to be implemented by March 31, 2018.