Province's police watchdog on pace for another record year

Release Date: 
June 2, 2016
Annalise Klingbeil

The executive director of the province’s police watchdog says it’s “heartbreaking” seeing families wait months, and sometimes years, for answers in a loved one’s death.

But Susan Hughson, with the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, said she doesn’t know what more can be done to speed up the amount of time it takes the oversight agency to conclude an investigation.

And in spite of a record number of annual files in 2015 and an increasing number of complex cases, Hughson said recent changes mean ASIRT’s timelines are actually improving.

ASIRT is an oversight agency that investigates police incidents across the province, including allegations of police misconduct and the deaths of people who are in police custody, or people who die or are injured as a result of their interactions with police.

Hughson, a former Crown prosecutor, spoke to the Calgary police commission at a public meeting on Tuesday and said every one of the 351 files the agency has investigated since its first case in 2008 must go through a robust process.

“Part of the model requires every file to go through the civilian at the top and that’s where we bottleneck,” she said following a question about ASIRT’s resources and increasing caseload.

“I’m very (aware of) the impact that a delay has on both the officers and the family members . . . We had a case that had predated me that had been outstanding for 19 months. It was 19 months of hell for that officer.”

Last year, ASIRT opened 78 files and Hughson said the agency is on pace to have at least that many again this year, a major increase from 2008 when ASIRT investigated 21 files.

“We are certainly seeing a lot more business,” Gary Creasser, team commander for the south office at ASIRT, told the commission at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re seeing much more of those complex investigations and allegations that take a lot of time, a lot of resources to get through, to uncover the truth, which is why we do this.”

The growing caseload means investigations can take months and even years to complete — the agency still has one file from 2013 that’s open because it’s awaiting Crown opinion.

Of 53 files in 2014, six are still open, and of the 78 cases in 2015, 46 remain open.

The months spent waiting for an investigation to be completed can be excruciating for the family members of a person who has died during an interaction with police.

But, in an interview following the police commission meeting, Hughson said involved officers and family members have to be patient because corners can’t be cut when it comes to ASIRT’s duty.

“It’s always very difficult because it’s wearing on the affected person’s families and it’s wearing on the subject officers. It’s wearing on everybody. My words to them are just they have to be patient because it has to be done right,” she said.

“It’s difficult because it’s heartbreaking. You want to give a family an answer.”

Hughson said the addition of two aboriginal investigators and a recent focus on “front-end loading” investigations means ASIRT is actually concluding cases faster than previous years, in spite of the increasing number of files.

“More staff wouldn’t help necessarily unless you have more me,” she said.

“At the end of the day, if you want to have a civilian-lead oversight agency, you need one person who is accountable for the decisions. That means I’m going to have to go through it.”

Hughson said because there are so many factors that go into a file, cases aren’t closed chronologically and there’s no way to tell how long an investigation will take or when a file will be concluded.