Police accountability takes time
This week’s trial of Constable Alex Dunn has raised questions about police accountability in Calgary. These questions are understandable, and we agree that the system needs improvement.
To help answer some questions, we want to provide a bit of background on how the process currently works.
Concerns about Constable Dunn’s use of force were first reported by a supervisor who witnessed the incident. That led to an internal investigation after which we charged him with assault causing bodily harm. This is the matter that was before the courts this week, which resulted in the video of the incident being made public.
Police officers have the same rights as everyone else, including being assumed innocent until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial. When criminal charges are laid, we must ensure our actions do not impact either of these rights. This includes pausing our internal investigation and disciplinary process.
Here is why. Alberta law only allows a police officer to be disciplined or fired for serious misconduct through an investigation and public hearing. These hearings operate like a court. Witnesses can be called, evidence is presented and a ruling is made by an independent presiding officer (not the Chief).
Holding a hearing like this before a criminal trial would introduce information into the public realm that could impact the court’s ability to hold a fair and unbiased trial.
We also cannot express an opinion on whether the force used was right or wrong when a trial or disciplinary hearing is expected or in process. That too could unfairly bias the process.
Under Alberta’s Police Service Regulation, we can only relieve a member from duty without pay when “exceptional circumstances” exist and it must be confirmed by the Calgary Police Commission. But the law does not define what counts as an “exceptional circumstance.”
Some guidance is provided by limited case law set by previous court decisions and Law Enforcement Review Board appeals. We must weigh this guidance with the procedural fairness of revoking the livelihood of the member and their family for potentially years while awaiting a trial or hearing – a time during which they are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Depending on any risks to the public, officer and Service, we strive to keep officers working rather than on paid leave. Often, they are moved to a role where they do not interact with the public. This helps with the wellbeing of the officer and their family, and ensures we still get a return on wages.
We also constantly re-evaluate the status of officers facing trials or discipline and it can change based on new information, the status of the case, or our ability to manage the risks changing.
As we said, we recognize that the process has room for improvement. We are working with the province to update the laws that govern police accountability – including a quicker timeline and asking for clarity on when officers can be relieved from duty without pay.
In the meantime, we hope this information provides some insight into the current accountability process.