Lethbridge police insist they’re taking action on province’s threat to disband them

In a worst-case scenario, Madu said all options are on the table in replacing the city’s current police service, including with RCMP

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Lethbridge police say they’ve been moving on reforms that would head off a threat by Alberta’s justice minister to dissolve the service.

In March 22 letters to Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman, police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh and the police commission, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said if the service failed to offer a substantial plan by April 16 in response to a series of controversies — including the harassment and improper surveillance of NDP MLA Shannon Phillips — he’d disband the force.

On Wednesday, Madu told reporters he was serious about that ultimatum that could see the force dissolved under Section 30 of the province’s Police Act.

“I was clear in my letter, I will take action and, if I need to, set aside the entire police force,” he said.

“I want to solve a culture of impunity which has taken place there . . . my goal is to rebuild trust.”

In a worst-case scenario, he said all options are on the table in replacing the city’s current police service, including with RCMP.

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But he said residents of the city of 130,000 people would never be left in the lurch.

“The people of Lethbridge would have a police force to protect the community,” he said.

But in a statement issued Wednesday, Lethbridge police insisted they’ve already made progress on many of Madu’s concerns revolving around training, transparency, oversight, discipline and recruiting.

“We have been developing an action plan over the past several months to address the problems raised by these troubling past cases,” it stated.

“In fact, while the Minister had set a deadline of April 16 to receive such a report from us, we expect to provide it much earlier.

“We are committed to demonstrating our dedication to these goals in the months and years ahead.”

Lethbridge police have been rocked by a series of controversies that led to the suspension of five officers and a civilian member for allegedly improperly using databases to perform unauthorized searches of a cabinet minister’s personal data.

Shannon Phillips, Official Opposition Critic for Finance.
Shannon Phillips, Official Opposition Critic for Finance. Photo by Greg Southam/Postmedia

Two officers were disciplined after photographing then-environment minister Phillips in a Lethbridge restaurant and then following her.

Five of the force’s officers were suspended for circulating “toxic” memes directed at Phillips and top Lethbridge police officials.

On Wednesday, Madu also raised conflict-of-interest concerns over how the service handled accusations that one of its retired members had had a non-consensual sexual relationship with a client, who was a domestic abuse survivor.

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The Justice minister brushed aside suggestions that three weeks might not be enough time for Lethbridge police to craft an acceptable reform blueprint.

“We can’t wait when there are serious problems — we don’t need to take months or years, this has been going on for quite some time,” said Madu.

“I have made the resources of my ministry available to them to get it right.”

Justice Minister Kaycee Madu.
Justice Minister Kaycee Madu. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia, file

But a Mount Royal University criminologist voiced skepticism over that timetable, saying it’s likely too short to be realistic.

“For any substantive plan to do that competently, the team you’d have to hire and put a program in place on any comprehensive level — it’s hard to see that in three weeks,” said Kelly Sundberg.

He said calling in the Mounties to replace Lethbridge police — when the province has expressed an interest in replacing RCMP with a provincial force — would be politically awkward.

“The only way you could replace the Lethbridge Police Service is by depleting an Alberta RCMP that’s already depleted,” said Sundberg.

But he said the situation could open the door to a major shakeup in law enforcement provision in the Lethbridge area, where a regional police force could be created.

What’s clear, said Sundberg, is the issues within the Lethbridge Police Service can’t be ignored.

“There’s a culture that exists in this police service that’s led to this,” he said.

The problems could even serve to discredit the force enough to have some criminal prosecutions questioned, said Sundberg.

“It’s a wet dream for criminal defence lawyers,” he said.

Sundberg said it might be time for policing in Alberta to be governed by a regulatory body, much as physicians, teachers and engineers are.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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