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3 Lethbridge police officers tender guilty pleas as part of 'MemeGate' disciplinary hearing

A disciplinary hearing is set to begin for five suspended Lethbridge police officers who face a total of 32 misconduct charges for allegedly distributing offensive memes.

2 other officers had their cases adjourned for 3 months with the intention of resigning from the service

Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh suspended five officers accused of distributing offensive memes earlier this year. Their disciplinary hearing is set to begin Tuesday. (David Rossiter/The Canadian Press)

Three Lethbridge police officers tendered guilty pleas to some Alberta Police Act charges while two others are expected to resign after Lethbridge Police Service held its so-called "MemeGate" disciplinary hearing Tuesday.

The hearing took place eight months after five officers were suspended after being accused of distributing inappropriate images. The officers faced a total of 32 misconduct charges for allegedly distributing the offensive memes.

While most of the memes are disrespectful to LPS leadership, some have racial or sexist undertones, according to sources who have viewed the images.

The officers, who are charged with numerous counts of discreditable conduct, insubordination and neglect of duty, are currently suspended with pay.

In June, Const. Matthew Rilkoff and Const. David Easter both pleaded not guilty to their six charges, which fall under the Police Act.

Sgt. Jason Moulton also pleaded not guilty. He faces the same charges plus two others.

On Tuesday, all three tendered guilty pleas.

Rilkoff and Easter pled guilty to four counts. The proposed sanction for the two officers is demotion within a rank of two levels of seniority for a period of one year, which would translate into a financial hit of about $15,000 over the course of that year.

The decision on those two officers will be rendered Dec. 16. Moulton's case was adjourned due to an active charge being outstanding, and his sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Greg Dunn, counsel for the cited officers, said he couldn't go into detail at this time as to the substance of the memes.

"Unfortunately, the memes are under a sealing from the court, which means they cannot be disclosed to the general public," he said.

Expected resignations

One of the five officers, Const. Keon Woronuk, was already disciplined for spying on MLA Shannon Phillips.

Woronuk, along with Const. Derek Riddell, had their cases adjourned until Feb. 3, 2022, at which point they are expected to resign.

The meme investigation began in 2018 and was conducted by Edmonton Police Service, which forwarded its findings to LPS in December. 

The professional conduct hearing took place at the Galt Museum in Lethbridge. 

The memes

Some of the memes were posted and circulated on work-issued phones and while officers were on duty, according to sources.

CBC News has not viewed the images but some have been described by those who have.

Several involved the faces of then-chief Rob Davis and Woods placed onto various images, including some from the Toy Story movies.

The images involved have been described by police employees as humiliating, offensive and toxic.

Officers have past issues at LPS 

Four of the five officers have previous conflicts at LPS.

Woronuk, along with Sgt. Jason Carrier, was temporarily demoted but the Law Enforcement Review Board called their disciplinary process "tainted, flawed and grossly inadequate," in granting Phillips the right to appeal.

Phillips is appealing the officers' sentence and is appealing to the Law Enforcement Review Board.

Moulton has filed several previous complaints against Deputy Chief Scott Woods — who also recently served as interim chief — the most recent of which was dismissed last June.

Easter has twice been charged with assault. He was found not guilty in 2014, and in 2020, his charge was dropped. 

Riddell was recently named in a CBC story as one of the five officers who used police databases to search Phillips' name without any apparent investigative justification. 

Threat to dissolve service

In March, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu ordered Lethbridge police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh to produce a plan to shape up the force.

In letters sent to the chief and mayor, Madu said he was considering taking the "extraordinary" step of dissolving the police service if he didn't see a concrete action plan.

After rejecting LPS's initial plan, a second one was submitted to the justice minister in June.

Recent controversies include the discovery that six employees allegedly used police databases to do unauthorized searches of then-cabinet minister Shannon Phillips' personal information.

Two LPS officers, including Woronuk, were disciplined for photographing and following Phillips, the Lethbridge-West NDP MLA, while she was environment minister under the previous NDP government.

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