Blue Line

Ensuring confidence in police complaints

December 15, 2011  By Lucas Habib

When Shirley Heafey moved to Alberta four years ago, it was for personal reasons. After all, following two challenging and contentious terms as the Chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, anyone would want something a little less stressful to pass the time. But she soon found herself working to improve police-public relations once again, as she heeded the call of duty and became Public Complaints Director for the Calgary Police Commission (CPC).

To her surprise, the CPC turned out to be far different from her experiences with other police complaint commissions. Mostly, the difference was in the attitude of the force, but also in some of the inner workings of the operation. Like the RCMP’s commission, Calgary’s does not itself probe complaints. Rather, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) investigates them, and then Heafey audits the investigation to ensure it was conducted properly. “What’s different, though, is that I have access to the full complaints database from my desk,” says Heafey. “That makes the process really easy and simple.” 

In many cases, complaints are dealt with through an informal process without using mediation – but only if the complainant is willing. Heafey is invited to be a part of this if she wishes. Following the resolution, Heafey says she often personally calls the complainant to find out if he or she was satisfied with the procedure and the outcome.

However, there’s another route a complaint can take, and according to Heafey, this is where CPS really shows its strenght. If a complaint does go through a full investigation, it proceeds to an Executive Panel Review – “an exceptional process that only happens in Calgary.” In Heafey’s words, “they’re the only police service in the country that is that transparent and accountable.” This view is echoed by John Dooks, President of the Calgary Police Association, the union that represents the force’s nearly 2000 members. “We have a unique relationship compared to some of our counterparts,” he says. “Shirley facilitates that and keeps the relationship going.”


During an Executive Panel Review, Heafey and Dooks are present, as well as three police superintendents, the member’s supervisor, and experts in use of force and other disciplines. “Everyone comes to the Review knowing everything about the file,” states Heafey. “And what’s interesting is that I’m invited to be present at this – they don’t have to invite me, but they want to be as transparent as possible.” Basically, Dooks is there to provide the member’s perspective, and Heafey gives the public’s perspective. Once the Panel makes a decision on the outcome and any discipline for the member, Chief Rick Hanson can reject or alter the decision – but he rarely does.

Heafey claims that the front-line members are very satisfied with the Review process. She says that following a Review, the union can say to a disciplined member, “you may not like the result, but it’s a fair process.” Dooks agrees: “the Review properly identifies frivolous and vexatious complaints, as well as ones where discipline is warranted.” He says that also reduces amount of time and money wasted on bad complaints. Both are proud that the overall process attitude is remedial, not punitive. 

Heafey says that there are lots of very good, capable members with good intentions, but maybe they’re not aware how they might come across to the public – every officer isn’t always at his or her professional best. In many cases, members are given the opportunities to correct their mistakes or attitude, possibly through additional training.

Another fringe benefit of the Review process is that it’s very comprehensive; it even examines violations committed by an officer that weren’t part of the original complaint. “Nearly all files have ‘collateral issues’,” says Heafey. “The complainant doesn’t always know about these – for example, the failure to properly Charter and caution – and they should also be dealt with.” She says that this is different from the way other police commissions operate.

While Heafey can’t discuss specific cases due to privacy concerns, she points out that she also receives a monthly report of all the compliments that CPS receives. Last summer, they got an avalanche of compliments from one particular incident. In July, a five-year old Calgary boy fell into Sylvan Lake, a popular resort lake near Red Deer, Alberta. He was still alive when he was found and was transported to hospital. An acting Calgary Police inspector made the controversial decision to use CPS’ HAWCS helicopter to fly the father from Calgary to the hospital in Red Deer, at an operational cost of $750 per hour. The father arrived in time to see his boy and to say goodbye before he passed away. While initial media and public reaction was negative, it quickly turned into an avalanche of compliments to the CPS. Heafey herself wrote a letter to the members involved to thank them for their compassion.

Overall, Heafey believes that CPS is setting a new agenda for police-public relations in Canada, and that other forces can learn a lot from its approach. Dooks corroborates this, saying that Calgary’s complaint process helps to identify and resolve common issues between the CPS and CPC to ensure public confidence is maintained – critical for any police force.

Heafey is happy where she’s landed. When she came to Calgary to be closer to her grandchildren, following their move west from Ottawa, she had some trepidation. “Calgary was one of the few major Canadian cities I’d never been to,” recalls Heafey. “I only knew the stereotypes about it!” It wasn’t long, though, before she found herself falling in love with the Stampede City. “My family actually left to return to Ottawa three years ago!” exclaims Heafey. “But I’ve stayed – it’s just a dream to be working in this city, with this Chief, and in this environment. Actually, it’s not work!”

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