Edmonton

'Out of step': Edmonton police alone in selectively naming homicide victims

Edmonton was the only city among Canada's largest 10 last year where police selectively chose to withhold the names of some homicide victims, a CBC News survey has found.

'We never want to live in a society where someone can be murdered in secret'

Out of 28 homicides in Edmonton last year, police withheld the names of 11 victims. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC News )

Edmonton was the only city among Canada's largest 10 last year where police selectively chose to withhold the names of some homicide victims, a CBC News survey has found.

Eight of 10 cities surveyed released the names of all homicide victims in 2018. Montreal released none.

Out of 28 homicides in Edmonton last year, police withheld the names of 11 victims, almost 40 per cent.

Following an approach that was adopted in January 2017, EPS often chooses not to release victims' name because "it serves no investigative purpose."

University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney said he finds that practice troubling.

"Well, it's a concern," he said. "Because it shows that, for whatever reason, the Edmonton Police Service has interpreted the governing privacy legislation in a way that is really out of step with most other major municipalities and major police forces in Canada."

Dale McFee was sworn in as new Edmonton police chief Feb. 1, 2019. (Peter Evans/CBC News )

Penney said he hopes the city's new police chief will see that EPS is an outlier and will return to the practice of releasing names in the public interest.

Dale McFee was sworn in as the city's new police chief on Feb. 1. He has hired the Saskatchewan-based Community Safety Knowledge Alliance to conduct a review of the EPS naming policy.

"This is a 30-day review, which will give us some options, some of the best practices out there," said McFee, who was once president and board chair of the non-profit organization, described on its website as an "evidence-based, government-supported knowledge and research consortium."

CBC News shared the results of its cross-Canada survey with McFee. He declined to comment about the numbers.

There were 15 homicides in Vancouver in 2018, and all victims' names were released. A spokesperson for Vancouver police said in rare circumstances a name may be temporarily withheld for investigative reasons.

"We never want to live in a society where someone can be murdered in secret," Const. Jason Doucette wrote in an email. "Releasing the names can assist in maintaining public safety and their level of fear. Homicides victims are not able to speak for themselves, and we hope by sharing details of the offence we will generate tips that could lead to the identity of those responsible for the death."

Winnipeg had 22 homicides last year, and police there also released all victims' names.

We choose to release the names.- Const. Tammy Skrabek , Winnipeg police 

"Every homicide is unique and they often have an impact on the wider community," spokesperson Const. Tammy Skrabek told CBC News. "In an effort to maintain our transparency and accountability to the public, we choose to release the names. Criminal informations are public record, and therefore any reporter or other person can easily obtain this information and share it publicly."

Montreal police always invoke privacy

A long-time crime reporter said Montreal police have refused to officially release homicide victims' names for the past two decades.

"The idea of revealing the identity of a victim is something that Montreal police will not do," said Stephane Giroux, president of the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists.

"They always invoke the issue of privacy. They feel that it's up to the victims or families to come forward. It's not their job."

Stephane Giroux, President Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists (Radio-Canada )

Montreal had 32 homicides last year; police there released none of the victims' names.

"It's the media/journalist that gives this information after doing their own research," spokesperson Evelyne Bourassa wrote in an email.

Giroux said reporters resort to finding the information through court documents, leaks or contacts.

It's not how transparency works.- Stephane   Giroux , president of the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists 

"It means that very often we'll end up getting the names days, sometimes weeks and even months after a crime has been committed," Giroux said. " It's not how transparency works."

The Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists has tried to arrange a meeting for more than a year with the Montreal police decision-makers.

"We are actively seeking a meeting ... in order to make them understand that their excuses for refusing to reveal basic information are not based on solid ground," Giroux said.

'No investigative purpose'

Former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht once said police sometimes withhold a victim's name at the request of family.

"I think we're following the rule of the law," Knecht said in a December 2017 interview with CBC News. "I think it's important to be sensitive to the victims."

When police announced last month that a second-degree murder charge had been laid in the 2016 death of a six-month old child, the baby's mother was not consulted about the police decision to withhold the boy's name.    

Phoenix Jones-Pidgeon died at age six months in July 2016. His mother, Brittany Pidgeon, was not consulted when police chose not to identify the baby. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"They never asked me," Brittany Pidgeon said. "They just said there will be a media release."

Pidgeon said she never got the chance to tell police she wanted her son's name released. She publicly identified her baby, Phoenix Jones-Pidgeon, in a number of subsequent media interviews.

A spokesperson for Edmonton police said policy was the sole reason for deciding not to release the name.

"As you're aware, this is currently EPS policy," Scott Pattison wrote in an email. "The suspect is in custody, charges have been laid, so releasing the name of the deceased infant in this case would serve no investigative purpose."

Pressed about the lack of consultation with the victim's mother, Pattison said: "The investigative portion of the file has concluded. If the immediate family chooses to release the name of the deceased, that is their decision."

Penney, the U of A law professor, said that's not good enough.

"What we don't want are frontline police officers or even police agencies making these decisions on a kind of ad-hoc, case-by-case basis and coming up with justifications sort of on the fly as to why identities are either released or not released in a particular case," he said.

"That's not consistent with the rule of law."

About the Author

Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.