It’s been a particularly tough year for the police chief of Alberta’s third-largest city
But Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh says he was fully aware of the problems before he took the top job in July 2020.
“I knew the challenges in this department and in this city, and a lot of these events that are bringing a lot of bad press to this department,” Mehdizadeh said in a sit-down interview with The Canadian Press. “I didn’t come to this with blind eyes.”
The police service has faced numerous controversies in recent years.
Last year, two officers were temporarily demoted after a review determined NDP provincial legislature member Shannon Phillips, while environment minister in 2017, was surveilled and photographed at a diner. The officers involved were concerned about changes Phillips was making regarding off-highway vehicles at nearby wilderness areas.
Separately, five officers and one civilian were investigated on allegations of conducting improper database searches on Phillips while she was in cabinet.
The force was also criticized in May 2020 for the violent takedown of a citizen wearing a “Star Wars” storm trooper costume and brandishing a toy laser blaster. An independent review said the officers had not acted inappropriately.
“There were some events that have really put a lot of negative publicity on this organization,” said Mehdizadeh, “but a lot of these events … range from 2016 to 2018, and any recent allegations are being tied to the historic events.
“As a result we have many investigations.”
Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu ordered the Lethbridge Police Service to clean up its act or risk being dissolved. He demanded an action plan to address everything from recruiting to oversight to changing the department’s internal culture.
“If I concluded that the leadership of the force and the commission were not serious about fixing the problem, I was prepared to do what was necessary to fix the problem,” Madu said earlier this week.
“They came back to me with an action plan that was acceptable and I approved.”
Madu said he will wait to see what a public inquiry by the Alberta Law Enforcement Review Board turns up before he decides how successful the changes have been.
He noted that he doesn’t blame the current chief.
“Let me be blunt … I think it stems from the previous leadership there,” said Madu. “I am very sympathetic to the current chief.
“He was brought in during the midst of these problems. None of these problems are part of his watch. This is a problem that he inherited.”
The president of the Lethbridge Police Association said the problems that became public were years in the making.
“It’s been miserable for us for more than the past year. I think what most people don’t understand is what they’re seeing now is predicated on things that came before. Nothing happens in a vacuum,” said Jay McMillan.
“Many of our own internal issues were born of an era where there was different leadership in place, or a lack of leadership. It sort of created a culture here that was not healthy and probably not able to withstand any external pressures.”
McMillan said most of the controversies don’t reflect the service now. He supports the changes outlined in the provincial action plan, he said.
“You’re able to look in the mirror as an organization or an individual and identify some things you can do a little bit better,” he said.
“A lot of the things in that action plan were things that were set up to take place already, so it wasn’t in response to the public attention. It wasn’t in response to the justice minister … the organization had already realized there were some changes that needed to be made.”
Mehdizadeh said his job is to “fix these things.”
“This is very historic stuff and it wasn’t fair to really judge the organization based on what went on a few years ago,” he said.
“I don’t have the authority to make arbitrary decisions to get rid of people or fire people. There are legal processes that we have to adhere to, that we have to be respectful of and compliant to move forward.”
Sanctions have been taken against a number of officers as a result of the circulation of inappropriate images, reportedly including pictures of senior staff pasted onto the bodies of characters from the animated “Toy Story” movies.
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press