'Time for talk is over': Justice minister tells Lethbridge police to shape up or face intervention
Chief Mehdizadeh, who refused recent CBC News interview request for the story, said in press conference
Alberta's justice minister is considering government intervention and demanding immediate action from Lethbridge's police chief as the city's top cop addressed "recent complaints" about the force — including that multiple employees undertook potentially unauthorized searches of a cabinet minister's personal information on police databases.
Documents showed a Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) civilian employee and five officers — including a deputy chief and a staff sergeant — accessed personal information on NDP MLA Shannon Phillips when she was Alberta's environment minister, yet no investigative purpose was given for any of the searches.
The force also came under recent scrutiny when the CBC News reported that a retired LPS inspector, who was head of a victims advocacy group, had a sexual relationship with a client, a domestic violence survivor, who said their relationship was not consensual. When the woman went to the police service to complain, the man's friends and former colleagues were initially assigned to investigate him — with the woman saying they were dismissive and that she worried about potential conflict of interest.
"The time for talk is over," said Justice Minister Kaycee Madu on Wednesday. "It's clear to me that what is going on over there is unacceptable and they understand that I need action right away."
Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh agreed the allegations against the force's employees are "very serious." Mehdizadeh committed to fully cooperating with Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) investigators, who are looking into all the searches conducted on Phillips.
In a press conference Wednesday, the chief of police also indicated that new allegations of misconduct against LPS officers are expected to be revealed in the coming weeks.
LPS losing 'faith and trust'
When Madu met with Mehdizadeh Tuesday, the justice minister said he won't rule out directing the Law Enforcement Review Board to investigate the service but will give the chief — who took over the service in September — a few weeks to come up with an action plan.
"Law enforcement that is sworn to protect and discharge their duties with honour and integrity have found themselves in a position whereby the citizens of Lethbridge are beginning to lose faith and trust and we can't afford to let that happen."
Madu says he sympathizes with the chief who is fairly new to LPS and will give him the opportunity to prove he's serious about making changes.
One officer suspended
On Monday, CBC News published a story about the LPS employees' potentially unauthorized searches of NDP MLA Shannon Phillips.
Mehdizadeh, who refused CBC News interview requests for this story, said in Wednesday's press conference that one of the officers is currently suspended for an unrelated matter but wouldn't elaborate.
The chief also said there will be no suspensions for the others who searched Phillips' name without an apparent investigative reason.
"I don't believe it's going to be a right process to go ahead and suspend them," said Mehdizadeh. "We need to have the facts before making judgments. We need to have the facts to make that decision."
5 officers, 1 civilian accessed Phillips' personal info
In 2017, Phillips was photographed by two on-duty police officers, one of whom who posted about her online. The officers were off-road enthusiasts and the then-environment minister had proposed the phase-out of off-highway vehicle (OHV) use on designated trails in Castle Provincial Park, west of Lethbridge.
Following a Medicine Hat police investigation, the officers have since been disciplined.
But Phillips believed there was more evidence she was being watched and filed a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).
The result, which she received late last year, was 9,308 pages on a compact disc. Almost all of it is blacked out in full or in part, but the several hundred unredacted pages released and viewed exclusively by CBC News contain startling revelations.
Over the course of 11 months in 2018, Phillips's name was searched eight times by five different police officers, one of whom is now retired, as well as one civilian employee.
The searches revealed in the FOIP request were "a fishing expedition, for reasons of snooping or wanting to engage in gossip," Phillips said in a recent interview with CBC News. "There is no reason associated with the search in those records."
Mehdizadeh has issued a public plea for patience.
"We are working on it, we are we are trying to move through these investigations and allegations through a proper process and protocol that's legal. So I just ask for the public to be patient."
"The men and women of law enforcement possess a great deal of power, and all Albertans should be outraged when that power is abused," Mehdizadeh said Monday afternoon.
No plan to reopen drugging complaint
Further details gleaned from the FOIP'd documents suggest officers never warned Phillips that someone reported to police that they thought the MLA was the intended target of a drugging at a bar in 2016.
"I'm sure if there was a serious concern about her safety, she would have been notified," said Mehdizadeh.
Force criticized for handling of complaint against former inspector
Last month, CBC News reported Bill Kaye, a retired LPS inspector who was the head of a victim's advocacy group, had a sexual relationship with a domestic violence survivor 33 years his junior who said the relationship was not consensual.
The woman, who was identified as "Emma" by CBC News since she is now the complainant in a sexual assault investigation, said Lethbridge police were dismissive of her complaint when she reported it.
Until he was confronted with the allegations last month, Kaye lead the Domestic Violence Action Team (DVAT) in Lethbridge, following his retirement from LPS as an inspector with 35 years of service.
In late January, the woman — who is in her 20s — reported she felt forced into a sexual relationship with Kaye who had been assigned as her case worker in 2018.
The woman reported the relationship to the Domestic Violence Advocacy Team (DVAT) and Chinook Centre for Sexual Assault (CCSA) with both organizations immediately supportive.
But when she went to LPS earlier this year, Kaye's friends and former colleagues were assigned to investigate him — until CBC News contacted the force and asked about perceptions of conflicts of interest.
Ultimately, LPS allowed Coaldale RCMP to take the case.
Mehdizadeh said LPS voluntarily handed the case over to Coaldale RCMP despite an email from RCMP to the alleged victim explaining that Lethbridge police were keeping the file.
The southern Alberta city has been plagued with more than its fair share of controversies in recent years including the violent arrest of a teenager dressed as a stormtrooper and the emergence of a disturbing video showing an officer repeatedly driving his patrol car over an injured deer.
Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCMeg. You can read some of her recent stories here:
With files from the CBC's Carolyn Dunn