Alberta has updated its Police Act, but the work to improve policing rules isn’t done yet – Canada

Late last year, Alberta’s United Conservative Party government amended the provincial Police Act, marking the first major effort to modernize the legislation in more than three decades. 

The update followed years of review through consultations with stakeholders, including police associations, First Nations and municipalities. 

The amendment act, which was proclaimed on Dec. 15, establishes an independent commission to manage complaints and conduct disciplinary proceedings and mandates the creation of civilian governing bodies for communities policed by the RCMP.

It also requires police services to develop community safety plans, diversity and inclusion plans, and their own policing priorities.

Critics say the changes still miss the mark in some areas. Now, further work is set to begin on police regulations, the rules that address the law’s practical applications.

“The key elements of the Police Amendment Act will take shape and come into effect as Alberta’s government develops associated regulations,” Dylan Topal, press secretary for Mike Ellis, Alberta’s public safety minister, said in an emailed statement.

The process will involve further consultations with stakeholders in several sectors, Topal said.

“This legislation is part of a wider — and ongoing — effort to reform and reimagine policing in Alberta.

“We’ll continue to look at ways to modernize policing through further legislative reforms, as well as non-legislative changes that can be made by revising policing standards and guidelines.”

An access to information request for recommendations from the Police Act consultations returned 21 pages.

Everything except background information was redacted.

CBC News spoke to several sources about the ideas that didn’t make it into amendments, some of which could still be addressed as regulations are hashed out.

Education and professionalization

Temitope Oriola, a professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, was appointed as a special adviser to assist in the review of the Police Act.

The revised act includes the creation of a police review commission, which was in line with Oriola’s recommendations and “a long overdue step,” he said in an interview.

The addition of guiding principles, which did not exist before, was also an important step, he said.

The eight points are a broad vision of the intentions of policing in the province, including that police should safeguard rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that complaint processes should be objective and transparent.

“It is practically miraculous that that act served us for as long as it did,” Oriola said. “It has required significant overhaul for many, many years.”

Temitope Oriola, a professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, says the education requirement is one crucial component in envisioning better policing. (CBC)

Some of Oriola’s recommendations didn’t make it to to the updated Police Act.

He had recommended higher minimum entry qualifications for police officers. He said cases of excessive use of force often involve officers who don’t have university degrees.

“In jurisdictions where you have a significant number of police officers with university degrees, they tend to engage in verbal de-escalation,” he said.

Creating a uniform use-of-force continuum — a guideline for how much force can be used in different situations — would compel all police services in the province to adhere to that standard, Oriola said.

Another idea that didn’t make it into the amended law was the creation of a professional college, similar to professional organizations for physicians and lawyers. Oriola said it’s a model used in the United Kingdom.

“Policing [in Alberta] continues to remain an occupation … which we generally treat as a set of manual skills that can be acquired with a Grade 12-level education, and about six months and two weeks of training,” Oriola said. 

“With all due respect, it is rather inadequate for 21st-century policing.”

Retirement loophole

Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel, chair of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association’s policing committee, said two major concerns the association put forward didn’t make it into the Police Act amendments.

One recommendation from the association was to change the act to allow for third-party complaints.

Under amendments made in 2010, only people directly involved can file complaints about officer misconduct.

If such a policy had been in place earlier, Engel said, it would have meant major police scandals  in the 2000s would not have been logged as complaints.

“The direct victims of that, they didn’t complain, for whatever their reasons were.”

Another critical omission, Engel said, is addressing what he calls the “retirement escape hatch” — officers facing the disciplinary process may instead retire to avoid censure.

“That’s a real problem and it’s unlike any other profession,” he said, adding that officers who have retired while facing disciplinary action have been hired by other municipal police departments.

Chris Young is president of the Alberta Federation of Police Associations, which represents eight police associations, including those in Edmonton and Calgary.

The federation had representatives attend meetings for the Police Act review. In 2018, the federation had released a set of recommendations asking for a slew of legislative changes, including the addition of independent oversight.

Young said there are outstanding concerns around disciplinary processes. He said chiefs can too easily win approval from their police commissions to extend disciplinary hearings, which can drag on for years. He said it’s also too easy for chiefs to get approval to relieve officers from duty without pay.

“[Commission members] only get their information from the chief of police so they only kind of get one side of the story,” he said. “We would have liked to have seen a little bit more independence in that.”

Young said changes have been a long time coming and the association “anxiously waits to see what the regulations are going to look like.”

Addressing Engel’s concern about officers using a “retirement escape hatch,” Young said any case where an officer facing discipline might try to move to another police service would be an issue of communication between chiefs.

First Nations policing

In 2020, Alberta formally recognized First Nations police services by adding a section to the Police Act. Three such services currently operate, with the Siksika Nation set to reinstate its own service in the future.

Approved amendments included a guiding principle that it is desirable for policing services to be provided in a way that recognizes the history and cultures of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

Also added was a preamble that it is desirable to establish policing services for First Nations reserves where an agreement exists.

Carolyn Buffalo, legal counsel and policy analyst for the Yellowhead Tribal Council, said funding for the establishment of those services will be vital.

But Buffalo also said First Nations need to be more explicitly written into the legislation.

“We are of the opinion that we should have representation at every single level, from top down,” she said.

“If there are complaints with respect to any policing, where you have a First Nations person involved, or if it is in one of our reserves or in our territories, then we should have a say in the review of the police conduct.”

Buffalo also said the council was not part of consultations for the Police Act review and that First Nations were not-well represented.

The government rejects that charge. Topal said First Nations and Métis representatives and organizations attended meetings conducted throughout all phases of the review.

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