The following letter was sent to City of Calgary’s Chief Rick Hanson, Police Commissioner Chair, Mike Shaikh, and City of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Dear Chief Hanson, Mr. Shaikh, and Mayor Nenshi:
RE: Independence of Police Officers from Political Leaders
The Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association regards the relationship between police services, the public and elected politicians to be of utmost importance in a free and democratic society. We have been impressed with the Calgary Police Service in the past for its commitment to civil liberties, and the leadership it has taken in this area. Whenever our organization sees that an important issue with any police service in the province arises and intersects with Albertans’ civil liberties, we are mandated to inform the police services and the public about such issues. Today, we are writing because one of these issues has arisen.
On May 22nd a news story was published noting Calgary City Councillor John Mar requested the Calgary Police Service look into a lot near his residence where it appeared that some of his neighbours had possibly trespassed to plant a garden. We have no issue with any citizen requesting the police look into any potential criminal act or bylaw infraction. Obviously, it is good citizenship when any person takes interest in his or her community, this is not the issue. However, John Mar, like any city politician, holds a position of power. When politicians make requests of police, there is the possibility that the police might respond differently than to requests made by ordinary citizens. It is important that the police remain in a position of independence from civic or other politicians, so that they can act without undue influence. When this independence is eroded, then the potential for abuse increases.
In this case, it was reported that, “…Calgary police arrived with Mar riding shotgun.” Another report by CBC Radio on May 22nd indicated that John Mar arrived “in a police van” and by the end of the incident there were 10 uniformed personnel with four police vans. The story was again repeated on the following day. The Calgary Herald even went as far as to call John Mar “constable Mar.”
If these news stories are accurate, there is quite a serious issue at hand. If any ordinary citizen had made a complaint to the police, it seems doubtful to us that the police would have 1) taken their direction from the citizen to 2) escort the member of the public to the site of a petty trespass in a police van, 3) respond with 10 uniformed personnel, and 4 police vans. It appears clear to RMCLA that police independence was indeed breached and that the police were taking direction from a politician, responding with far more resources that what the situation would have attracted had the politician not been involved.
If police independence is breached on such a simple matter, then when matters of greater importance (especially those concerning civil liberties) arise, it becomes possible the police will again take direction from politicians, rather than take direction from law, and policies of the police service. As you know, politicians are not above the law. An important part of maintaining civil society is ensuring politicians are treated equally to that of every citizen. If the police take specific direction from politicians, then this can be a terrible violation of the public trust concerning policing.
Our concern in this matter relates to ‘chain of command’ and that the Calgary Police Service did not retain its independence from political interference in assessing its priorities in this situation. We ask the Calgary Police Service and the City of Calgary to investigate the matter and indicate:
1) the Calgary Police Service policy on ‘Chain of Command’ issues and independence from politicians and political direction;
2) the City of Calgary policy regarding Calgary Police Service ‘Chain of Command’ issues and CPS independence from politicians and political direction; and
3) Their respective conclusions following their investigations into this matter, including:
a. the degree to which the police and politician in this matter followed police service and City of Calgary policies, and
b. follow-up training with Calgary Police Service members and Calgary City Council related to this incident and the import democratic principles surrounding ‘Chain of Command’ issues and CPS independence from politicians and political direction.
We look forward to receiving your response.
On behalf of the RMCLA Judicial Oversight Committee
Author: Kelly Ernst, Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association