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‘IDEAL TIME’: Investigative teamwork leads to prompt conclusion 

How an EPS School Resource Officer played a pivotal role in a Hate Crimes Unit file

11-Aug-2020

The Edmonton Police Service’s (EPS) Hate Crimes and Violent Extremism Unit (HCVEU) is celebrating a swift resolution to what could have been a lengthy investigation, thanks to the help of a School Resource Officer (SRO). 

As part of a multidisciplinary team within Edmonton schools, SROs act as a liaison between the police and the school community. A key part of their role is to build relationships with students, parents, teachers, school administrators and community partners. It is this role that enabled SRO Constable Ellie Arias to quickly get to the bottom of a complex hate crime investigation.

On June 4, HCVEU became aware of and began investigating an Edmonton-based Instagram account identifying itself as a “Nazi page.” The account began targeting a local student and their family, publicly posting their home address.

Screenshot of “nazisofyeg” Instagram account

The account owner quickly shut it down, but not before the harm had been done.

“The public who saw this thought the family were the ones responsible for creating the account and began harassing them,” says EPS Constable Freddie Challenger, an investigator with HCVEU.

While the Unit set to work on the investigation, obtaining screenshots and reviewing citizen tips, Const. Arias received an email from one of the educational institutions she works with during the school year.

Although schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Const. Arias and her fellow SROs continued to provide their services by way of the Youth Enhanced Deployment initiative, assisting students and their families where needed, as well as school staff and administrators.

“After the account was brought to my attention, the staff shared their concerns with me that this account may have been created by one of the schools’ students,” explained Const. Arias.  

Const. Arias approached Const. Challenger to see if she could provide any assistance in the investigation. Working together, Const. Arias went door-to-door to speak with students and their families, while Const. Challenger focused on safety planning for the family affected by the Instagram account.

Ultimately, it was Const. Arias’ information that led to the identification of a suspect.

“Const. Arias was able to get more information from the students because they knew and trusted her,” says Const. Challenger. “Once she was able to get some names, and we were able to narrow it down to the suspected youth who created the account, that youth was comfortable enough to sit down and speak with her because they knew her.”

“What was most important to me was trying to understand the context as to why the account was created in the first place,” says Const. Arias.

“I’m happy to say that I have a great relationship with many of the students, and many of the kids and families I spoke with were comfortable opening up to me. As it turns out, this case wasn’t about racism, but about bullying.” 

Online bullying among youth has increased considerably with school being out, notes Const. Arias. “The challenge is that youth don’t always grasp the repercussions of their actions, especially when it comes to digital platforms.”

In the end, what could have taken the Hate Crimes Unit months to complete was reduced to an approximately three-week investigation, as Const. Arias played a pivotal role in determining a starting point in the early stages of the investigation.

“If Const. Arias didn’t reach out to me when she did, I would have had to go the route of getting several production orders approved by a judge just to figure out who created the Instagram account,” says Const. Challenger. “That process alone can take a few months.”

Once the creator of the account was identified, the officers worked with the school to find a solution and decide the best level of intervention. Rather than being charged, the student was given an opportunity to make amends and avoid unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system.

Without the strong relationship that existed between the SRO and the school, Sergeant Gary Willits of the Hate Crimes Unit believes this file would not have had the same result.

“You never want to see one poor choice lead to devastating consequences for a young person’s future,” says Sgt. Willits. “Sometimes youth just need supports to help learn from their mistakes, feel valued and be able to grow, and in this case, thankfully, that’s what happened.”