Edmonton police 'plain wrong' to keep murder victim names secret: lawyer

An analysis of 2017 homicide statistics from Alberta's three largest police forces reveals the Edmonton Police Service is the most secretive in the province when it comes to naming homicide victims.

Almost half of the city’s homicide victims in 2017 were not named by EPS

This scene of a stabbing in September 2017 was one of 42 homicides investigated by the Edmonton Police Service last year. (CBC News )

The Edmonton Police Service may be the most secretive in the country when it comes to identifying homicide victims.

That's the conclusion reached by lawyer and Ryerson Journalism professor Lisa Taylor.

"Edmonton, it sounds like, is really standing out as an area where this misguided, well-intentioned, but just plain wrong approach of keeping this stuff under wraps is out of control," Taylor said in a telephone interview with CBC News.

An analysis of 2017 homicide statistics reveals EPS refused to release the names of 17 of last year's 42 homicide victims, or approximately 40 per cent.

By contrast, the Calgary Police Service named all 27 of its 2017 homicide victims, while RCMP throughout the province withheld the names of 8 of 46 homicides, or 17 per cent.

In August, the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a province-wide framework aimed at employing a consistent approach on naming homicide victims to be used by all police services.

But it appears nothing has changed since then.

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht concurred.

In a year-end interview, he told CBC News, "Based on your statistics, I wouldn't disagree with you.

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht was surprised to find out nothing had changed since last August when the province's police chiefs had adopted a new policy on naming homicide victims. (CBC News )

"I'll be quite candid with you," Knecht continued, "I haven't been following it since then. I thought we were taking a common approach. You've done your homework."

'Sometimes we err on the side of being oversensitive'

Knecht continued to defend the EPS policy on naming homicide victims.

"I think we're following the rule of the law," Knecht said. "I think it's important to be sensitive to the victims."

He added, "Maybe we're oversensitive?"

He said he respects the recommendations made by his homicide officers.

"My folks come to me and say we're not releasing the name for this reason or that reason, and I support that. They know the investigation far better than I do. They've talked to the victims, they know the perpetrator, they'll release the name if it's in the public interest and they won't release the name if it's not in the public interest."

But Taylor insists "there is no compelling reason whatsoever" to withhold the name of a homicide victim.

Lawyer and Ryerson Journalism professor Lisa Taylor says homicides 'are not private matters.' (Ryerson University )

"They're not private matters," Taylor said. "This is a non-negotiable, relevant, intrinsic step because it's about providing information to the public."

"Sometimes I guess we err on the side of being oversensitive," Knecht said. "And I guess that can be a criticism depending on which lens you look through ... I think we want to be open and transparent. I don't think we're trying to frustrate anything by not putting the name out there."

Domestic violence homicide victims often unnamed

Of the 17 homicide victims not named by Edmonton police last year, eight were victims of domestic violence. The cases included two women allegedly killed by a spouse and one man allegedly killed by his partner. Two infants were allegedly killed by a biological parent, a stepson was accused of killing his father and a son was charged with killing his mother.

In all those cases, Edmonton police refused to release the names of the victims, even if they had already been made public on social media.

Taylor thinks that approach is regressive and wrong.

"I mean, domestic violence is a huge public matter," Taylor said.

"It creates kind of a second class of victims. There are homicide victims that we name because these are kind of 'real' homicides, but domestic violence cases are just something that happened in the home. Not naming someone suggests the home is this private, protected sphere and they're not public matters."

She added, "I don't know how policing got to be done to this extent behind closed doors."

'We probably invite criticism'

Edmonton homicide number 41 is in a class of its own. All police will say is that a homicide occurred. They continue to refuse to say when or where it happened, or even if the victim is male or female.

"Policing is a public function," Taylor said. "This is kind of star chamber investigative tactics. It makes no sense."

Knecht acknowledged his force's interpretation of the policy on naming homicide victims leaves it open to criticism.

"We certainly don't advantage ourselves by doing that. In fact we probably invite criticism by being overly cautious," Knecht said.

"Better to be overly cautious than be frivolous, especially when it comes to victims."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.