Alberta MLA says demotions aren't enough for officers who surveilled her, calling for independent probe

Former Alberta NDP cabinet minister and current MLA Shannon Phillips is calling for an independent, out-of-province investigation after the revelation that she was the subject of unauthorized surveillance by two Lethbridge police officers.

Independent, out-of-province investigation is needed, Shannon Phillips says

Lethbridge-West MLA and former environment minister Shannon Phillips says demotions aren't sufficient sanctions for two police officers who surveilled her for political reasons. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Former Alberta cabinet minister and current NDP MLA Shannon Phillips is calling for an independent, out-of-province investigation, after learning two Lethbridge police officers surveilled her without authorization. 

"I don't think we can tolerate … a mere demotion for the kind of abuse of power we saw these two officers undertake. It was political intimidation, it was the stuff of police states. It's just not something we tolerate in a free society," Phillips said Tuesday.

Lethbridge police Sgt. Jason Carrier and Const. Keon Woronuk were temporarily demoted following a disciplinary hearing decision issued June 9, as first reported by Medicine Hat's CHAT News Today on Monday.

The pair admitted to watching and photographing Phillips, who was the provincial environment minister at the time, during a 2017 meeting in a diner in Lethbridge.

One of them admitted to following and running the licence plate of one of the people she met with, saying his actions were motivated by his personal and political views. 

Both officers were involved in the off-roading community, whose members were upset by plans by the then-NDP government to restrict off-road vehicle use and create a provincial park in the environmentally sensitive Castle area of southwestern Alberta.

The officers were found guilty on seven total counts including corrupt practice, discreditable conduct, deceit and neglect of duty. Woronuk, who had followed and ran the licence plate of the stakeholder, was demoted from senior constable to first-class constable for two years, while Carrier was demoted from sergeant to senior constable for one year.

"The sanction does not appear to be proportionate to the tremendous abuse of power we saw with this," Phillips said.

The Lethbridge-West MLA added that she's grateful the provincial justice minister has asked the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) to review the investigation but said it's not enough. 

Shannon Phillips calls for independent investigation after Lethbridge police officers demoted

3 years ago
Duration 1:41
The former Alberta NDP cabinet minister and current MLA for Lethbridge-West says an external investigation would help restore trust in Lethbridge police after learning two officers conducted surveillance on her without authorization.

She asked Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer to appoint an out-of-province, independent investigator to assess if there is a need for criminal charges. 

"My community deserves to feel safe, we deserve to feel well served and protected, and we deserve to have our questions answered about these officers who are still out there on the streets potentially today." 

The minister said Monday he has instructed that his department will arrange for an out-of-province prosecutor, should ASIRT require legal advice in conducting its investigation or laying charges. 

MLA only learned of 2nd investigation Monday

Phillips had first learned of the surveillance after she saw a photo of herself posted to Facebook by one of the officers, and filed a complaint to Calgary police. 

Calgary police investigated but Woronuk did not disclose that he had run the licence plate of Phillips' lunch companion. That investigation resulted in warnings being issued to the two officers, but the discovery of the unlawful licence plate search triggered a second investigation, which was passed on to Medicine Hat police, resulting in the Police Act charges being laid. 

Phillips said she had believed the Calgary police investigation was the end of the matter, until she learned Monday of the second investigation and demotions. 

Two Lethbridge officers admit to surveilling a former cabinet minister 

3 years ago
Duration 3:50
Alberta's police watchdog is promising an investigation into the actions of two officers. The officers admitted to eavesdropping on a political meeting in 2017. They were recently demoted for using their positions for 'personal advantage.'

Phillips said she wasn't contacted as part of the second investigation, and said the agreed statement of facts in the disciplinary hearing contained errors.

For example, the police disciplinary decision stated in the agreed statement of facts that the MLA's meeting had been to discuss NDP plans for a provincial park in the Castle region. Phillips contested that through a spokesperson on Tuesday and said the primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reintroduction of bison into Banff National Park, although it is possible the Castle region might have come up. 

Officers brought 'embarrassment and shame' on police: chief

Lethbridge police Chief Scott Woods said in a statement Tuesday that although the hearings were public, the police service has been limited as to what information could be released until now as there is an HR component to the proceedings. 

However, Woods said as the information is now in the public domain, the service has more discretion to comment.

"The actions for which these officers – Sgt. Jason Carrier and Cst. Keon Woronuk – were disciplined cannot be excused.  The fact that they admitted to the charges of misconduct indicates that they acknowledge this reality," he said.

"But acknowledging the wrong-doing does not take away the embarrassment and shame that has been brought upon the LPS by their actions, nor does it mitigate the justified anger and profound disappointment of Ms. Phillips and others in our community who have a right to expect so much better from their police service."

Woods said while he believes the misconduct was investigated thoroughly by an outside agency and the officers were held accountable through appropriate sanctions, the entire police service now must bear the consequences and the challenge of regaining community trust. 

'It cuts to the very heart of an impartial justice system'

But Phillips disagrees with Woods assertion that the sanctions were appropriate. She said she spoke to the police chief on Tuesday, and said while the conversation was positive, she expressed her concerns.

"We are at a time with people having questions about placing their public trust in law enforcement, we deserve those answers," she said.

Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said he was appalled to learn of the incident. 

"It cuts to the very heart of an impartial justice system," he said. 

"You cannot have serving police officers running around exercising political preferences for personal gain."

Lethbridge police headquarters is seen in a file photo. The force was the first to sign up for a US based ethical policing course. (Sarah Rieger/CBC)

Gordon said there is a good possibility the officers could see jail time, adding that at first glance the incident could be seen as a breach of trust under the Criminal Code.

"Ex-police officers do not do easy time," he said.

Outpouring of support across political spectrum

Phillips said while she has ongoing concerns that need to be addressed, she's been heartened by an outpouring of support across the political aisle, from voices like Premier Jason Kenney of the United Conservative Party and federal Liberal MP and former environment minister Catherine McKenna.

McKenna said she doesn't think it's a coincidence that two women holding the environment minister portfolio have faced abuse.

"I think it reinforces we need more women in politics, not less," she said. 

That was a message Phillips echoed.

"This kind of behaviour toward women, that they can be shouted out of the room, they can be intimidated, they can be silenced by things that are legal or illegal. That can't be tolerated. That has increased and we do need to deal with that."

  • Read the full police disciplinary hearing penalty decision below, or click here.

With files from Elise Von Scheel, CBC's Power and Politics