New Alberta legislation would create independent police oversight body
Police Review Commission would take 18 months to start up
The Alberta government plans to create a new independent agency to oversee most cases of misconduct against police officers.
In proposed reforms to the Police Act, the United Conservative Party government intends to create a Police Review Commission. It would take policing the police out of individual municipal police departments' hands and give that role to the commission.
"In our many discussions with Albertans, one thing that came up consistently was the need to change how complaints against the police are investigated — to end the system of police investigating the police," Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis told reporters at a news conference Thursday.
Right now in the city of Edmonton, for example, the police commission hires a public complaint director who oversees a branch of the force that investigates allegations against the organization's own members.
Critics say this is far from best practice.
Although current officers wouldn't be eligible to work with the commission, Ellis said retired police could.
What's unclear is whether a new provincial commission, when it's up and running in about 18 months, would have a mandate to oversee discipline of RCMP officers contracted in small Alberta communities.
As of June 2020, RCMP were the largest police service in Alberta, with about 3,800 employees working in 164 Alberta detachments, according to a government-ordered study.
Ellis' press secretary, Dylan Topal, says the cost of the commission would be shared between the province and local police services.
"We're still having discussions with Public Safety Canada on that," Ellis said of the federal ministry.
He added Alberta RCMP are supportive of the move.
The bill also seeks to expand the role of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which now investigates all instances when police are involved in a serious injury or death.
The Police Amendment Act, tabled Thursday in the legislature, would have ASIRT also investigate serious incidents involving peace officers and sheriffs.
Minister could appoint police commissioners
The act would also require all communities policed by the RCMP to have formal, local civilian governance bodies, like a police commission.
The proposal is complex and the kind of oversight body required depends on the population of the community.
There are 15 communities that contract the RCMP and have more than 15,000 residents. They would need to establish a local governance body if they don't already have one.
Smaller municipalities would be represented by both regional and provincial policing organizations.
When a community does have its own police commission, the bill would give the minister the power to appoint some of its members. Municipal councils appoint commissioners currently.
Ellis said that move would improve communication between police and the province.
"This is just about having a seat at the table," he said. "Ensuring that municipalities, or commissions, are aware of government priorities."
Ellis said the mayors he's spoken with are receptive. He pointed to British Columbia, where the provincial government appoints the majority of local police commission members.
Ellis said Alberta won't be going that far, but did not give specifics about how many commissioners he would appoint.
Professor says proposed legal changes a good start
A University of Alberta criminology professor who gave the government recommendations based on public consultations and a review of evidence says establishing the independent commission for discipline is a major step forward.
However, criminologist Temitope Oriola said people who have worked as a police officer or served in the military should not be leading a true civilian oversight agency.
"That's the standard among our peer countries around the world," he said.
He also wanted to see the government elevate the educational requirements for police. He said jurisdictions that require police to have three-to-four years of post-secondary training have much lower rates of use of excessive force. Alberta police need to have about six month of training after high school, he said.
The changes will put Alberta in the middle of the pack in terms of police modernization in Canada, he said.
Tanya Thorn, Okotoks mayor and Alberta Municipalities board member, doesn't love the idea of politicians being in a position to appoint members of local police commissions. Those groups need people who understand the local area and its people and policing needs, she said.
"Anything that takes away from our local autonomy as municipalities, we always have a concern about," she said.
The proposed changes come after advocacy from police themselves and cultural groups. The government met with more than 200 organizations, and surveyed more than 15,000 members of the public and 1,500 people in law enforcement.
The Police Act changes, which would be the first major overhaul of the legislation in more than 30 years, include other modernizations and tweaks:
Police would be required to develop community public safety plans and report annually on their progress in achieving their goals.
Police agencies would be required to develop diversity and inclusion plans.
It would allow the minister to set provincial policing priorities to improve consistency of service across Alberta. Police commissions would also have to set coordinated local priorities and report annually on progress.
Alberta police must follow eight new provincial guiding principles, including respecting human rights and recognizing the history and culture of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
The legislation would also make bureaucratic changes to the Law Enforcement Review Board, which hears appeals of police disciplinary decisions.
With files from Travis McEwan
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