Alberta police watchdog swamped as corruption, sexual misconduct investigations rise

A spike in investigations into possible sexual misconduct and corruption within police ranks has contributed to a ballooning caseload for the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.

ASIRT annual caseload has more than doubled since 2013

Susan Hughson, executive director at ASIRT, say the organization is at "100-per- cent" capacity, with 70 files to investigate last year. (CBC)

A spike in investigations into possible sexual misconduct and corruption within police ranks has contributed to a ballooning caseload for the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.

The police watchdog agency took on 70 files from across the province last year — more than double the number of files assigned five years prior.

In both 2016 and 2017, allegations of sexual offences by law enforcement officials and corruption rose dramatically.

In some ways, the rising caseload is a sign of confidence in the system, said ASIRT executive director, Susan Hughson.

"There's an onus on the police services themselves to report and we've seen since 2014 really positive improvements in the way that's happening," she said.

"The system that's set up under the Police Act is improving. I think the police services themselves are buying into the process and buying into the benefit of an independent investigation."

ASIRT investigates serious or sensitive allegations of police misconduct, as well as incidents that result in serious injury or death. It's then up to Hughson to determine whether police conduct was lawful, or if criminal charges are warranted.

Corruption cases take time

In an "ideal world," ASIRT would have a separate anti-corruption team, Hughson said. Those investigations are long and complex, possibly involving search warrants, wire taps, and technological investigations.

In sexual-offence cases, multiple files are often opened on one person. Once allegations become public, more complainants often come forward, Hughson said.

"In a positive sense, the environment for reporting sexual offences has become a bit more open. So we are seeing more reporting, and that's across the board,whether it's with respect to police officers or the general public."

ASIRT recently completed three files on RCMP Const. Jason Tress, which led to several criminal charges.
Const. Jason Tress, shown here in a photo from February 2016, is charged with two counts of sexual assault and two counts of breach of trust involving three different women. (Zachary Cormier/Red Deer Express)

Two of the incidents allegedly occurred while Tress was on duty. In both cases, Tress is accused of asking women who had come into the Red Deer RCMP detachment to expose their breasts. In another case involving a third woman, Tress is accused of sexually assaulting her while off-duty.

Tress is scheduled for a preliminary inquiry in October.

Hughson said there is "no one thing" that has contributed to the caseload that has her team at "100-per-cent" capacity.

There are also more "critical incidents" involving police. Many of those result from cases involving a civilian with mental health or drug addiction issues, which can "deteriorate into a critical incident," she said.

Cases where a person dies in police custody still raise the most interest — from the public and the families of those involved.

But those cases are often taking longer to conclude than before. ASIRT released a report only this week into the 2015 death of Walter Raddatz, who killed himself during a standoff with Edmonton police, after he fatally shot Const. Daniel Woodall.

'It's hard to get closure'

Funding for ASIRT from the department of justice and solicitor general has increased over the past four years, going from $3.14 million in 2014-2015 to $4-million in the current fiscal year. The office has hired legal counsel and a technical analyst with part of that funding.

But delays that have resulted from years of growing caseloads mean that many officers are waiting longer to see if their names will be cleared.

"I know ASIRT has got an important job to do, but the timeline for getting files concluded is not in everyone's well-being," said Sgt. Mike Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association.

"It's hard to get closure on both sides when there are files that are outstanding for a long time."

Hughson acknowledged that delays are hard on officers, their families, and complainants.

"Right here and now, it may take a little longer but I believe we're getting just outcomes.

"We cannot be wrong, we cannot make a mistake, because we make a mistake once and it will impact our reputation and public confidence and it isn't easy to get that back."