Alberta's government has announced that it plans to introduce several amendments to the province's Police Act, including an expanded mandate for the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) and a more independent public complaints process.
According to the province, The Police Amendment Act will enhance transparency, accountability and civilian involvement.
"Key reforms will establish an independent and more straightforward process for complaints against the police, promote more diversity in policing and encourage greater collaboration between police and civilian partners to improve public safety," a government news release stated.
If the bill is passed, ASIRT, which currently investigates cases of death and serious injuries involving all police services in Alberta, as well as serious and sensitive allegations of misconduct, would be expanded to also include deaths and serious injury involving peace officers employed by provincial organizations as well as community peace officers working at the municipal level. ASIRT would also become part of the new Police Review Commission.
"An independent agency, the Police Review Commission, will replace the current patchwork of “police investigating police” with a single organization for receiving complaints, carrying out investigations and conducting disciplinary hearings. The commission will manage a central pool of presenting and presiding officers for disciplinary hearings, ensuring proceedings are impartial and scheduled efficiently."
A newly-formed investigations unit would handle all other misconduct complaints involving police officers employed by municipal police services and First Nations police services. However, the province added that further discussions are underway with the RCMP and Public Safety Canada to determine the extent of the RCMP’s ability to participate in the complaints process.
Mark Neufeld, the President of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, concurred that changes to update the Police Act are long overdue.
"We have advocated for several years that the act needs reform to bring it more in line with the realities of the modern police workplace. This is also an opportunity to enhance independence and transparency in the complaints process, which will enrich trust and confidence across our province."
However, Irfan Sabir, NDP Justice Critic said that while the Alberta NDP supports civilian oversight of law enforcement in order to ensure policing is responsive to the needs and diversity of communities, the NDP feels this legislation does not have adequate details on how all that is laid out in the amendments would be achieved.
"This legislation gives the UCP government sweeping powers to interfere in local policing commissions and matters. It is a disturbing step towards the politicization of policing from a government that has a record of political interference in law enforcement and the administration of justice," he wrote in a released statement.
The newly proposed legislation would establish formal civilian bodies in all Alberta jurisdictions policed by the RCMP, responding to a long-standing desire from those communities for a stronger role in setting policing priorities.
Currently, municipalities with stand-alone police services must currently have a police commission to provide independent oversight, while municipalities with a Municipal Police Service Agreement (MPSA) with the RCMP have the option to form policing committees to act on behalf of the mayor and council for police oversight, though according to the province, most communities have not formed a policing committee.
The proposed changes would also mean that there would be an establishment of a provincial police advisory body for communities receiving RCMP policing through the Provincial Police Service Agreement. Local police governance bodies would be set up for municipalities with a population larger than 15,000 and a Municipal Police Agreement with the RCMP, with the flexibility to coordinate with neighbouring communities.
Currently, municipal police commissions are appointed entirely by the municipal council. Amendments would enable the minister to appoint members to these commissions, with the number based on the size of the commission.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services Mike Ellis said that police should have a strong connection to their community and that functioning as a police service is an extension of the people it serves rather than a strong arm of the government.
"This first major update to the Police Act in generations is a blueprint for building police services in Alberta that embodies that principle, with reforms that strengthen accountability, give communities more input and promote diversity.”
The province stated that the amendments would also require police to develop community safety plans and report annually on their progress. Proposed reforms also reimagine police as a responsive extension of the community. Under the new legislation, police would be required to develop community safety plans in collaboration with partner organizations that focus on crime prevention and alternatives to enforcement, like addiction treatment, housing and employment support.
"Amendments will enhance provincial oversight by clarifying that police must take provincial policing priorities into account when setting their own priorities. Police will need to report on their policing priorities and progress in achieving these to the ministry," the province stated.
Between 2018 and 2021, the government engaged with stakeholders and the public extensively on the Police Act. The targeted sessions with key stakeholders represented law enforcement, municipalities, Indigenous communities, community-based organizations, and others. Approximately 15,000 survey responses from the public, police agencies, and stakeholder groups.
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