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Alberta’s police oversight body plagued by delays

Click to play video: 'How long is too long? ASIRT investigations taking years to resolve'
How long is too long? ASIRT investigations taking years to resolve
This week, ASIRT finally released the report into what happened at a fatal police shooting four years ago in Edmonton. As Sarah Ryan explains, those delays are wreaking havoc for everyone involved — including the police – Nov 4, 2022

Earlier this week the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) released the findings of an investigation into a 2018 fatal shootout involving police in east Edmonton — nearly four years after it occurred.

It’s part of ongoing delays with the police oversight body.

“There’s an old saying: justice delayed is justice denied. And the ASIRT backlog is a pretty good illustration of that,” Tom Engel, policing chair for the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said.

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ASIRT is tasked with looking into the criminal aspect of incidents where people are seriously injured or killed in interactions with police across Alberta.

It determines whether police acted lawfully and breaks down what any civilians involved did, what happened and when.

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Not having those answers for years weighs on everyone connected to the case, Engel said.

“Did the deceased have family?” he said. “Well, they’re owed a timely resolution.”

Click to play video: '6 Edmonton police officers cleared of wrongdoing in Boxing Day 2018 shooting'
6 Edmonton police officers cleared of wrongdoing in Boxing Day 2018 shooting

Engel added the average Albertan also has a stake in what happens because it impacts community policing.

“The public interest demands that these investigations be done in a reasonable time. And we’re far beyond reasonable time, on average, with ASIRT.”

Jody Day had a bullet enter his three-year-old daughter’s bedroom in the 2018 shootout on Boxing Day.

While the family had just left home, he was concerned.

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“That is literally where my child, my daughter, would sleep. Where her head would be, pretty much right where that bullet hole was,” Day said.

Day was surprised by how long things were taking and had a lot of questions. He didn’t even know if the bullet was fired by police or the wanted man they’d been tracking.

“Did the police follow procedure? What was in their decision-making to engage with this person in a residential area? Why? Why right in front of my house?”

The president of the Edmonton Police Association said use-of-force incidents can be lifechanging for officers and waiting only adds to the burden.

Click to play video: 'Peace officers failed to check on inmate, lied to EPS: ASIRT'
Peace officers failed to check on inmate, lied to EPS: ASIRT

“They’re left wondering: ‘Did I follow proper procedures? How is this affecting me? How is this affecting my family, the service?'” EPA president Michael Elliott explained.

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“They need closure as well. It can be very impactful on them, from a mental perspective.

“Waiting two, three, four, coming up now on five years for closure on a file is absolutely ridiculous, and it’s so unfair for the members that are involved.”

Elliott said the investigations also put careers on hold.

Read more: ASIRT reveals preliminary details into southwest Calgary shooting after man dies

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“He or she may be potentially on duty restrictions because of that incident or can’t move, are awaiting a transfer, or maybe want to transfer to a different service and can’t.”

Delayed ASIRT findings can also delay improving policy and procedures, said University of Alberta criminology professor Temitope Oriola.

“We are missing multiple opportunities for learning and growth by leaving this case unresolved on addressing investigations lasting multiple years.”

“There’s also, of course, the issue of public confidence when an incident which, as far back as 2018, remains unsolved with almost zero updates up to right now. That does not inspire confidence or trust,” Oriola added.

Click to play video: 'ASIRT says imitation firearm recovered from Edmonton fatal police shooting scene'
ASIRT says imitation firearm recovered from Edmonton fatal police shooting scene

Edmonton’s Police Chief Dale McFee said until ASIRT puts out its report, police forces don’t have the details needed to move forward with their own reviews or a public fatality inquiry.

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“Absolutely it’s challenging because you always want to know right away what went right, what went wrong, what do you need to change? Because if there is a mistake, you never want to make it twice,” McFee said. “If it isn’t, you want to validate it so people feel better.”

In the case of the 2018 shooting, though, Edmonton police did make some operational changes while waiting for the ASIRT investigation to go public.

In a written statement, the service wrote that it “improved the flow of information about high-risk officer safety targets to operational areas, such as patrol.”

It also “implemented organization-wide training regarding the transition of resources between operational areas during a high-risk event.”

Part of the issue around the delays is the sheer volume of cases ASIRT is responsible for.

In the last decade, ASIRT has gone from having around 30 cases a year to upwards of 80 cases annually.

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Oriola said ASIRT is overseeing 25.4 per cent of all police use of force cases in Canada, second only to Ontario’s special investigations unit.

That is disproportionate to Alberta’s population.

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“If we do value police oversight, we ought to put the resources required into it,” Oriola said.

He believes more simple investigations can be completed within three to six months, if the watchdog is adequately funded.

Click to play video: 'Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld discusses ASIRT investigations and Impaired Driving Month'
Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld discusses ASIRT investigations and Impaired Driving Month

“The most serious, most egregious, most consequential cases ought not to last longer than 12 months,” he said.

Engel thinks the timelines should be sped up even faster than that, arguing most police investigations are concluded quickly, especially if an officer was injured.

“It’s a clear double standard,” Engel said.

“I’m not exaggerating by saying that they should have it done. If they had all the resources they need, they would have done it within a week.”

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In 2022, under the direction of a new executive director, ASIRT has been concluding more cases.

McFee said ASIRT was given more lawyers and more investigators after the last executive director left, who was candid about the lack of resourcing in the organization.

“From our perspective, we do see improvement. But with that improvement, there’s still backlog,” the police chief said.

Neither ASIRT nor Alberta’s Justice Ministry responded to Global News interview requests by deadline.

Following the airing of our story, a communications advisor with Alberta Justice’s public security and emergency services sent updated funding totals for ASIRT.

2019-20: $4.1 million

2020-21: $4.2 million

2021-22: $3.9 million

2022-23: $5.3 million

Ian Roddick wrote: “Budget 2022 increased funding for ASIRT by 35 per cent to provide more staff for investigations into police conduct in serious and sensitive incidents.

“The funding increase supports five new investigators and two new support staff positions that support investigators and help ASIRT run efficiently.”

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Acknowledging the backlog of cases, Roddick wrote: “We are working with ASIRT and other stakeholders now to ensure next year’s budget will allow the organization to continue its vital work in a timely manner.”

Oriola is advising the province on a police act review, one which could result in organizational changes. That review is expected to be released later this year.

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