Saskatchewan’s justice minister says it was an unintended consequence that police would withhold the names of homicide victims when they were brought under provincial privacy laws.
Don Morgan said that’s why the government recently amended a regulation to spell out that police forces are in fact permitted to name murder victims.
“It’s in the public interest to have people know that a homicide has taken place and to know who the victim is.”
The issue emerged last year after Saskatchewan police forces became subject to provincial freedom-of-information and protection-of-privacy laws.
The Regina Police Service reviewed its own policies, including the disclosure of murder victims’ names.
“Where previously we had routinely released the victim’s name, the new policy required a determination be made on a case-by-case basis,” said a 2018 report to the service’s police board, signed by Chief Evan Bray.
Last May, Regina police withheld the name of a homicide victim and the policy shift was met with criticism from community advocates, media and from Morgan himself.
“It was clearly an unintended consequence of the legislation so we felt it was important to try and address it,” he said.
Morgan said he was surprised and “somewhat disappointed” that the issue arose in the first place.
He said Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner’s position was that the dead have privacy rights and that information about victims is often made public once charges are laid.
But Morgan said he interpreted the privacy laws differently on the issue, and he hopes the recent amendment puts the dispute to rest.
Marlo Pritchard, chief of the Weyburn Police Service and head of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, said police forces have always had the power to release or withhold a murder victim’s identity.
Still, he commended the government for clarifying the issue, saying it ensures police know they can release a victim’s name without breaking privacy rules.
“It’s probably in the public interest in most cases to release the name of the homicide victim,” Pritchard said, citing a recent homicide in his community where the victim’s name was released.
“It kind of stops the rumour mill,” said Pritchard.
“It may also generate some information back to police.”
The practice of naming murder victims differs across Canadian police forces, including the RCMP.
In Edmonton, for example, a spokesperson said the Edmonton Police Service’s new chief, Dale McFee, will be reviewing the matter with an eye for striking a balance between the public right’s to know, privacy rules and victims’ rights.
The review comes after Edmonton police drew criticism for not naming murder victims.
A spokesperson for the Saskatoon Police Service said they choose to publish the names of homicide victims on a case-by-case basis. The name is kept private if police feel publicizing it could threaten the investigation or the victim’s family requests it not be released, the spokesperson said.
The Winnipeg Police Service, meanwhile, will release murder victim’s names once next of kin have been notified. It will also temporarily withhold a name if doing so is important to an investigation, said a spokesperson.
Regina police spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich noted the clarification gives discretion to the chief of police, who she said will still decide what to do on a case-by-case basis.
“Could the issue come up again in 2019?” asked Pritchard.
“Sure it could.”