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Friday, November 05, 2010

Alberta criminal trial lawyers slam police-discipline changes

November 5, 2010
Keith Gerein, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON — The Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association is furious over provincial changes to the police discipline process, which the group says will make it more difficult to pursue complaints against misbehaving officers.

The proposed rules were introduced in the legislature Thursday by Solicitor General Frank Oberle, who said they were needed to streamline and speed up how such cases are handled. Changes include restrictions on who can launch a complaint, more powers to dismiss frivolous complaints and provisions to shorten appeals.

The lawyers' association said it was most concerned by an amendment that will stop "third parties" from making complaints. Only people directly affected by an officer's behaviour, their loved ones, or witnesses would be allowed to make submissions under the proposed rules.

"This will prevent people who see something in the news that disturbs them from lodging complaints," Oberle told his fellow MLAs Thursday.

"They were not witnesses to or impacted by the event, nor are they related to or acting on behalf of a complainant. Complaints of this nature eat up both time and resources and this proposal will prevent these types of complaints from going forward."

Lawyers' association member Tom Engel, an outspoken critic of the Edmonton Police Service in recent years, believes this rule change is specifically targeted at his organization. As a third party, his association has brought forward complaints for people unable or unwilling to proceed on their own, he said, noting the case of homeless people who were allegedly rounded up in a police van and dumped in a different part of the city.

"This will basically make it impossible for us," Engel said. "It's very apparent that they are trying to cut the CTLA out of the equation. It's very apparent the police services here have the ear of the solicitor general.

"They like to sweep things under the carpet and obviously having the CTLA around wasn't working for them."

A spokeswoman for the solicitor general said groups like Engel's will still have the option of bringing their concerns about an officer to the police chief, but the case would proceed only if the chief himself then decides to launch a complaint.

Another contentious amendment says that in cases involving "non-serious" incidents, the police chief's decision will be considered final. Currently, such decisions can be appealed to the Law Enforcement Review Board. Taking away that appeal avenue is unfair to both complainants and officers, and will allow chiefs to keep case details under wraps, Engel said.

"If he doesn't want something to see the light of day ... you're going to see a big increase in dispositions without hearings."

Other proposed changes include:

- - Provisions to allow the review board to get through appeals faster, including holding fewer trial-like oral hearings;

- - Greater powers for cases to be dismissed when the complainant declines to participate in hearings or misbehaves;

- - Allowing alternative dispute resolutions in appropriate cases.

"In some cases all that is needed for resolution is a simple apology or acknowledgment of the complaint," Oberle said.

"An officer who is seen as disrespectful during a routine traffic stop might be a good example where alternative dispute resolution would work."

The amendments fall short of the Edmonton Police Association's call for all police complaints to be handled by a civilian oversight body.

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