Edmonton police to reverse policy, begin sharing names of homicide victims

Following an independent review, Edmonton Police Service default position will be to release the name, a change that comes after more than two years after deciding to withhold them.

Chief Dale McFee announces homicide victims will be named by default

Chief Dale McFee speaks to the media following an Edmonton police commission meeting. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Victims of homicide in Edmonton will no longer be nameless individuals after the city's police service decided to reverse its policy on withholding names.

Chief Dale McFee announced the change at Thursday's police commission meeting.

"I can say from this day forward, we are going to release as the default," McFee said. "Exceptional circumstances, I think we have to explain ourselves."

The decision follows an independent review, ordered by McFee, done by the Saskatchewan-based Community Safety Knowledge Alliance (CKSA). The review canvassed police agencies across the country, victim's organizations, legal scholars and the media.

"Overall, the majority of individuals interviewed supported releasing the names of homicide victims. Where they differed was in their recommended approach to doing so," the CKSA stated.

After McFee reviewed the report, he concluded it was time to make a change.

Since January 2017, police have released a homicide victim's name if detectives thought there was a public safety issue or if it could help further the investigation. The change is a return to the way things used to be, said acting Supt. Scott Jones.

"We will be releasing the name with certain criteria being met," Jones told the police commission. "One would be that it doesn't compromise an ongoing investigation. Two would be that the identity has been confirmed. Three would be that the next of kin has been notified."

Acting Supt. Scott Jones is one of the officers who will be deciding whether or not to release a homicide victim's name. (Trevor Wilson/CBC )

Jones told the commission he expected victim's names to be released in more than 90 per cent of their cases. In a later interview with the media, he outlined possible exceptions that could make up the remaining 10 per cent.

"Let's say, when it's a murder/suicide and there's no investigative reason and the family maybe is adamant that the names not be released," Jones said. "Perhaps in the instance of a child murder, when there's no benefit to releasing that child's name."

The Alberta Council of Women's Shelters prepared a submission for the CKSA that supported the release of names in cases of domestic violence, arguing that doing otherwise contributes to family violence being stigmatized.

Jan Reimer, the council's executive director, was quoted in the CKSA report saying: "Family know, their friends know, the schools know, the workplace knows. It's not like this is a secret. It's also important for the public to know."

It's a viewpoint that Jones doesn't necessarily share. "My personal opinion is there's opportunities where we can have discussions publicly about  domestic violence and the impact it has on the community, without necessarily releasing the name of the individual."

'We're going to go proactive on educating the families'

With a new default in place, it will be up to homicide detectives to speak with family members and prepare them for the public glare.

"We're going to go proactive on educating the families and try to obviously work with the families so they can prepare themselves," McFee said.

The new approach was applauded by Coun. Scott McKeen, a member of the police commission and a former journalist.

Police commission member and city councillor Scott McKeen commends EPS for altering its policy on naming homicide victims. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"I know the media gets described as vultures in these situations but there's actually a community benefit to the role they play," McKeen said. "I think it's actually really important for [the victim] to be a human being and not a number or an unidentified person."

So far this year in Edmonton, there have been 15 homicides. Police have withheld the victim's names in five of those cases.


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.