Calgary

Lawyer wants inquiry into alleged threats of retaliation against MLA and CBC journalist by Lethbridge police

A Calgary defence lawyer is calling for a public inquiry into allegations that members of the Lethbridge Police Service have threatened retaliation against NDP MLA Shannon Phillips and CBC journalist Meghan Grant for exposing misconduct within the force.

Whistleblower letters also allege political bias and derogatory statements regarding sexual assault victims

MLA Shannon Phillips, seen here in a file photo, was surveilled by members of the Lethbridge Police Service and new letters suggest she and a CBC journalist were the subject of possible retaliation plans. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

A Calgary defence lawyer is calling for a public inquiry into allegations that members of the Lethbridge Police Service have threatened retaliation against NDP MLA Shannon Phillips and CBC journalist Meghan Grant for exposing misconduct within the force.

Michael Bates represents both Phillips and a woman who accused a retired LPS inspector of sexual assault. Both of his clients received anonymous whistleblower letters in June regarding discussions within the service. 

"In one of the disclosures, there is a suggestion of a potential plan of retaliation against a named member of the professional media as well as a sitting member of the legislative assembly of Alberta for what can be inferred as [them] having sought public accountability of the Lethbridge police service," Bates said at a Lethbridge Police Commission meeting on Wednesday night. 

"Does the commission have any policies or policing standards which direct the chief of police to protect citizens, or members of the media in particular, who are seeking public accountability from potential retaliation against them by members of the Lethbridge Police Service?"

CBC News has confirmed the MLA is Phillips and the member of the media is Grant — a court reporter for CBC Calgary who has written extensively on controversies within the LPS. The identity of the whistleblowers is not known. 

Rob vanSpronsen, the chair of the commission said a letter from Bates was received on Sept. 27 requesting an inquiry into whistleblower protection.

"The Lethbridge Police Commission takes seriously the allegations raised in the letters and will be reviewing the request for a public hearing as well as the accompanying questions he asked," he said in an emailed statement.  

Phillips targeted

Phillips was followed and monitored by members of the service while she was environment minister under the NDP government of Rachel Notley. 

Documents show her information was searched on the police database at least eight times by five different LPS employees with no investigative reason for doing so. She was also photographed during a meeting at a Lethbridge diner and one of the officers involved then followed two of the attendees of the meeting for several blocks and ran their licence plates.

The database searches are currently being investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.

Both officers involved in the diner photos — who were opposed to plans for a provincial park in the Castle area spearheaded by Phillips — were temporarily demoted and disciplined for their actions, but the Law Enforcement Review Board called their disciplinary process "tainted, flawed and grossly inadequate," while granting Phillips the right to appeal the discipline.

That appeal will be heard on Dec. 7. Phillips has previously said she wants those officers to lose their jobs. 

'Mistreatment of sexual assault survivors'

At the commission meeting, Bates said there are also allegations of "extremely derogatory personal political opinion" from officers that would suggest bias in dealing with complainants by officers as well as concerns raised about the "mistreatment of sexual assault survivors and victims of human trafficking."

The lawyer wants the commission to examine whether LPS personnel have a safe and respectful workplace and what about the current culture would make an employee feel they could not speak out, but rather send an anonymous letter to an outsider. 

Bates asked whether there are protections for whistleblowers within the service. 

Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says more investigation is needed into the authenticity of the whistleblower letters to ensure they are from within the LPS, but if so, an inquiry would be appropriate. 

"If there is sufficient evidence that it has come from inside the Lethbridge Police Service, I think at that point, given the nature of how all of this started with, you know, the unlawful surveillance of a minister of the Crown by police officers, you have to be seen in your next steps as being rigorous and not kind of, you know, 'leave it with us,'" he said.

King said if the statements were authenticated and tied to someone in a position of authority within LPS, that it would be "unconscionable."

Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu "has been suggesting that if things aren't straightened out, he's prepared to bring in the RCMP as the municipal police force temporarily in Lethbridge until they get their act cleaned up," King said. 

"We're inching closer to that too."

Province demands action

The call for an inquiry is just the latest in a series of public embarrassments for the LPS. Earlier this year, Madu threatened to disband the service if it did not submit a detailed report on how it would address misconduct in its ranks. 

Madu called the initial report from LPS Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh "disappointing" and ordered a more detailed plan, which was submitted in April. 

A spokesperson for the Lethbridge police declined to comment on the call for an inquiry and directed CBC News to the police commission.

Commission chair Robert Van Spronsen did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Phillips referred a CBC News request for comment to Bates. Bates did not immediately respond. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. Signal contact upon request. CBC Secure Drop: www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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