Calgary's strongman

National Post

Thursday, April 21, 2005

It's no wonder that Jack Beaton, the Calgary police chief, is sensitive to criticism. Over the past year, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) has been dogged by allegations of racism, brutality and corruption. One officer has been charged with fraud, and a member of the police commission resigned after it was alleged she helped cover up misconduct. (Health problems, however, were the reason given for her departure). And a survey of over half of the CPS's uniformed officers found widespread misgivings about senior inspectors' lack of "integrity, ethics, fairness and compassion."

However trying recent times have been, though, chief Beaton appears to have badly overstepped his bounds earlier this month: After obtaining a court order, officers were sent to raid a private home of a CPS civilian employee to seize a laptop computer the chief suspected was used to create a Web site critical of him and his force.

Such a draconian use of authority risks eroding public confidence in the rule of law and the courts. So we would expect that the public would at least be enlightened as to the general reasons behind it. But distressingly, both the chief's application for the order and the judge's reasons for granting it are sealed.

The effect, for which both the chief and the presiding judge bear some responsibility, is to give the impression of a tin-pot society where those in power can hush opponents.

We're confident that many of the accusations made on the Web site, StandFirm  -- which has ceased operations -- will eventually prove groundless. Calgary's police force is one of the most effective in the country, solving more crimes per capita than most while simultaneously suffering one of the lowest officer-per-citizen rates. It also boasts a comparatively low number of citizen complaints.

Moreover, some of the most damaging accusations against Calgary police have already proven untrue. Last fall, for instance, a retired officer complained to the province's solicitor general that a serving commander had attended the scene of a fatal accident drunk -- but an RCMP investigation later dismissed that accusation as unfounded; likewise the follow-up charge that other high-ranking police covered up for the commander.

But the force's generally strong reputation, and the importance of upholding it, makes it all the more unfortunate that the chief was allowed to arbitrarily gag his critics. Indeed, the site's rhetoric -- "We are the police, the communication officers, the administrative staff [who] have been victims of tyranny, politics, harassment, bullying, racism, constructive termination, etc." -- looked most valid when viewed in the context of his actions. If he felt it necessary to take action, it would have been far better to do as most civilians would have and filed a lawsuit against the site, then allowed the courts to assign punishment as necessary.

Nor has the presiding judge done the reputation of the court system any good by agreeing with the chief's authoritarian request, especially in the absence of a lawsuit. So-called "Anton Piller orders" are typically granted only when it is feared that evidence in a civil trial might be destroyed or lost if it is not secured.

Alderman Craig Burrows, a member of Calgary's police commission, has responded to the incident's fallout by insisting that "any time you go after the morale of a service or the morale of a city that takes pride in its service, the chief has a right to act."  But that pride won't last long if the chief, acting like some Third World strongman, is doing more to undermine it than the critics he's targeting.

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