Nov 11 2015
CALGARY - Police Chief Roger Chaffin is reviewing an internal policy of withholding the names of officers who are charged with crimes while carrying out their duties, and signals he's leaning toward "heightened transparency."
The policy has long been a thorn in the side of many defence lawyers who argue it creates an unfair double standard, because their civilian clients do not enjoy the same degree of anonymity when charged with criminal offences.
The union that represents police officers warns that Chaffin risks losing the loyalty of those who work under him if he appears to be "unnecessarily throwing them to the wolves."
The police service's written policy gives discretion to the chief on whether to name an officer charged with a criminal offence. Former Chief Rick Hanson took matters a step further by declaring officers charged while carrying out their duties would not be publicly identified unless they were convicted.
This might change under Hanson's successor, but Chaffin cautioned he must balance the pull toward greater transparency against the impact a policy change would have on the privacy of officers involved.
"If I was to answer that bluntly, I'd probably be looking more toward heightened transparency," Chaffin said in a meeting this week with the Herald's editorial board. "But I need to think through the effect it will have on officers."
Howard Burns, president of the Calgary Police Association, said any move to identify officers charged in connection with on-duty incidents would unfairly smear them.
Burns said police routinely charge suspects with assault, but rarely announce those charges to media. A news release disclosing excessive force charges against an officer would make front-page news, he said, but convictions are rare.
The union boss said there are cases where a charged police officer should be identified, citing a case roughly 30 years ago when an officer was arrested for bank robbery, but he said they should not be subject to similar public scrutiny when "doing their job."
"The chief's job is to support his people as well, and if they feel that they don't have his support, I'm not so sure how loyal and how hard-working they're going to be for that chief," Burns said in an interview. "They're going to resent him if he appears to be unnecessarily throwing them to the wolves."
Under Hanson's policy, all officers charged with misconduct while off-duty were identified.
The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association made headlines in the fall of 2013 when it called on Calgary police to identify an officer charged with an assault on a prisoner.
The officer was accused of using excessive force when booking a prisoner at a downtown holding facility in December 2011. The prisoner, who received minor injuries, did not file a complaint, but a routine review of the incident triggered an internal investigation that led to Crown prosecutors in Edmonton recommending an assault charge.
Burns said the charge has since been stayed or dropped, but the officer faces internal disciplinary action.
Chaffin is meeting with the editorial boards of media outlets across the city after taking the top job last month.
As he reviews the policy, he said he's concerned officers would be "vilified" before they'd have a chance to answer to charges against them, though he acknowledged civilian suspects face the very same scrutiny.
"We have to be careful about creating a standard where we're elevated above the public as well."