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Chief fires back at criticism of homicide victim naming policy

01-Feb-2018

 Published in the February 1, 2018 edition of the Edmonton Journal Editorial Section

 

Despite repeated attempts to provide Paula Simons with the reasons governing our controlled release of information on homicide files, she continues to assert that the EPS is cloaking those releases in “. . . an aura of mystery” and “. . . keeping the truth about who’s dying [homicide victims] in the dark.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The rule of law means that the law applies equally to everyone and that no one is above the law.  Our politicians, the wealthy, celebrities, judges . . . everyone must obey the law.  There is an even stronger public expectation that Police will follow these same laws. 

Alberta’s privacy legislation is contained within the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP).  The EPS must abide by the FOIPP provisions, as must every police service in Alberta, with the exception of the RCMP, who are governed by similar federal legislation.  The EPS participated in an Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police (AACP) committee mandated to establish consistent practices regarding the naming of homicide victims, hosted by the Solicitor General’s office.  The result of that committee’s work was a framework, endorsed by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, that allowed all AACP agencies to approach this issue in a consistent manner.  This was made available to all media outlets, and Ms. Simons is well aware of its provisions.

While it is impossible here to explain all of the considerations that go into deciding whether a homicide victim’s name should be released, I will highlight the most important points.  Section 17(4) of the FOIPP Act makes it clear that the disclosure of a homicide victim’s name is presumed to be an unreasonable invasion of their personal privacy.  Therefore, in order to release the name, the circumstances supporting release must outweigh the presumption of privacy.  This must be determined on a case-by-case basis, while considering ALL of the relevant circumstances.

Section 40(1) (c) allows a public body to disclose personal information for the purpose for which it was collected or a use consistent with that purpose, such as investigative necessity.  Where it is reasonable and necessary to further a homicide investigation, releasing the name of the victim may be appropriate.  That is not the situation with our latest homicide. 

Contrary to Ms. Simons’ unwavering opinion, the mere fact that an individual has been the victim of a homicide is not legally sufficient rationale to disclose that individual’s name.  Section 32 of the FOIPP Act requires that a matter must be “clearly in the public interest” as opposed to a matter that may simply be “of interest to the public”.  Mere public curiosity is not enough to disregard the privacy rights of the victim and their family. 

 

The EPS has not made “. . . a radical change in practice” as alleged by Ms. Simons, as we have been following these rules for the past number of years.  What has changed is the realization that we are now further required by law to only release as much personal information as necessary to solve crimes.  Arbitrary publication of the personal information of every homicide victim would go against privacy legislation, potentially put critical investigations and prosecutions at risk, and contravene the wishes of many family members who are suffering through unimaginable loss.  

Police must follow the law.  We are accountable to the families of the victims, who don’t want today’s grief to become tomorrow’s headlines or social media musings, to the courts, who want facts and information that are untainted by reckless media speculation, and to the communities we serve.  It is perplexing to be criticized repeatedly when we stand by the principles of legislation and the dignity of those who are suffering the greatest of loss.  

To avoid criticism, the easy thing would be to unlawfully and unethically publish the name of every homicide victim.  I would rather take the criticism and do what is right.