Edmonton

Head of Alberta's beleaguered police watchdog agency resigns

The head of Alberta’s police watchdog agency has resigned, signalling what critics say is a long-foreshadowed breakdown in the chronically underfunded agency.

Critics say Susan Hughson’s resignation highlights 'disarray' in underfunded agency

Susan Hughson was named acting executive director of ASIRT in July 2014 and formally appointed to the role in December of that year. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The head of Alberta's police watchdog has resigned, signalling what critics say is a long-foreshadowed breakdown in the chronically underfunded agency.

Susan Hughson, executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), confirmed that she submitted her resignation Tuesday morning, but declined to comment further.

"It (ASIRT) is in disarray," said Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel, whose firm specializes in complaints against police.

"They have no leadership and I don't know what they are going to do to try to replace these people," said Engel, who noted ASIRT's former assistant executive director Greg Gudelot recently left, as did other ASIRT staff who either quit or retired.

"It is not like a toxic workplace or something like that. It is just a frustration that they can't do their job." 

Engel said the loss of Hughson is a huge blow to the agency.

"She has been an excellent executive director," he said. "She has done her best with limited resources and under her leadership, generally, investigations have been thorough and objective."

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel, whose firm specializes in complaints against police, says ASIRT is in "disarray." (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Hughson was named acting executive director in July 2014 and was formally appointed in December 2014. Her last day on the job is Dec. 8. She is joining Alberta Justice's special prosecutions unit as a prosecutor.

Hughson's resignation follows a recent controversial decision by Alberta's Crown Prosecution Service to stay an assault charge laid by ASIRT against an Edmonton police officer following a two-year investigation. 

Const. Dylan Awid was captured on cellphone video by several citizens in June 2019 repeatedly kicking and then slamming a handcuffed prisoner headfirst into a brick wall.

The Crown said the evidence didn't meet its standard for prosecution. 

Former British Columbia solicitor general Kash Heed told CBC News it was one of the worst cases of police abuse he had ever seen. He said the Crown's decision should be the subject of a judicial review.

In October, the prosecution service also refused to prosecute a Sherwood Park RCMP officer, with a history of assault complaints, who slapped a handcuffed prisoner in the face. The Crown said there was insufficient evidence.

Engel and other criminal defence lawyers have said the prosecution service applies a standard of evidence to cases involving alleged illegal acts by police officers that it doesn't apply to cases in which civilians are accused of crimes against police officers.

"I think it is fair to say that she hasn't been very happy with the kind of outcomes of that scrutiny by the Crown prosecution service, especially in recent times," he said.

Underfunding creates growing case backlogs

ASIRT is staffed by current and former police officers who investigate cases where police officers — both municipal and RCMP — may have caused serious injury or death, as well as serious or sensitive allegations of police misconduct. 

The agency has been hamstrung by chronic underfunding for years.

In February, Hughson told the Edmonton Police Commission that the agency was at "a critical breaking point" as it struggled to investigate a growing backlog of files dating back as far as 2018. 

Hughson told the commission the funding problem for her 30-member team has existed since 2014. But she said she didn't expect current Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu to provide any additional funding. 

The government, she said, would have to review the agency's mandate because if it didn't provide additional funding "they are going to have to pick and choose what they want us to do."

ASIRT funding cut by three per cent in 2019-2020

The government cut ASIRT's funding by three per cent in the 2019-2020 fiscal year as part of a six-per-cent overall cut to the Justice ministry.

During the budget debate in March, Madu told the legislature he was confident the ministry's various agencies would be sufficiently funded. 

At a press conference Wednesday, Madu said Hughson had not resigned. He said her departure was planned by the ministry so that she could prosecute a complex case. Hughson however, confirmed she submitted a formal resignation letter.

Madu, as he has in the past, insisted ASIRT has enough staff and resources to do its job. But Hughson said staffing and resources are still a serious issue at the agency. 

Madu did not answer a question about how or when Hughson would be replaced. 

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun said the situation at ASIRT will make it difficult to recruit a comparable replacement for Hughson and other staff.

"ASIRT can't retain staff. They don't have enough funding. They don't have enough support. And it's gotten to the point where the remaining staff are overworked," Hart-Dowhun said.

"ASIRT will have a lot of difficulty recruiting anyone properly qualified to do Sue Hughson's job in these circumstances."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Rusnell

Investigative reporter

Charles Rusnell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. His journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. and follow him on Twitter@charlesrusnell

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