Sunday, November 07, 2010

Please Hold

During a time of already tumultuous upheaval in the Edmonton Police service (The chief of police is due to retire in December, one of the three deputy chiefs is leaving a few weeks before, so far no replacements have been named) the government is trying to impose new legislation that changes the way the justice system deals with police complaints, specifically, complaints must only be made by people directly involved with the incident in question. Currently the system allows the Criminal Trial Lawyer's association (CTLA) to lodge complaints on behalf of the victim. The change in emphasis mirrors what occurred with the justice system decades ago when we moved from being charged with assault against individual persons, to being charged by the crown, on behalf of the victim. It helped it cases such as abuse where the victim may be too scared or unable to press charges, since it ensures the guilty party is brought to justice and taken off the streets.
The rationale for this new legislation is that it will "streamline" complaints, lighten the load, and help ensure complaint volume is kept down; the hidden message is such: there are not going to be less incidents which result in complaints, there are going to be less complaints. Looking at the numbers reported for 2009, however, there were 17 complaints of criminal misconduct lodged against members of the Edmonton Police service. In the year 2009, 1,129 complaints were resolved from previous years (749 of these were requests for information), and 1,054 were opened (740 of which were requests for information). There is no mention on how many complaints may lie festering in the "pending" pile, but considering the Police commission must request special dispensation to extend the duration of a complaint's investigation past six months, it's unlikely to be very many.
Let us say, for the sake of argument (I love arguments) that they still want to cut down on the complaints; considering that it is "unlawful" to make a false complaint against an officer, I am not sure what the nature of the eliminated complaints will be. If they wanted to cut down on frivolous complaints, stiffer penalties for fake complaints should be enacted. It could also be broadcast that it is illegal to make a false complaint, provide a deterrent to aspiring pranksters. But the same report reveals only 5 complaints (2 for criminal conduct, 3 for poor service) were dismissed as "frivolous", and while another 5 (4 criminal, 1 service) were withdrawn later by the complainant, this is not setting the kind of precedent for restricting the complaint process that people really want to see; rather it seems to indicate that the kind of complaints that are coming in, are genuine and do address a real concern. It is likely then that any restrictions, any "net" placed on the program, is going to result in less legitimate complaints getting through. In a city that has such high aspirations as ours, a solid avenue of communication between citizens and law enforcement is invaluable.

Edmonton, I hear from officers, used to be one of the best in Canada for its incredible community program, lauded for being open and inclusive. In recent years, however, we have slipped from this esteemed perch, and it seems most officers are at a loss for why this has occurred (especially since revenue from fines dropped 60% since 2008, shouldn't that make them MORE popular?). Let's hope that 2010 gives us better numbers and 2011 reveals some better opportunities for cohesion within our city.

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