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Director of ASIRT says investigators are at a "breaking point"

Last Updated Feb 19, 2021 at 10:54 am MST

(CREDIT: ASIRT)

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) – As they’re tasked with handling a growing amount of cases, Alberta’s police watchdog is warning it’s in a precarious situation.

During an Edmonton Police Commission meeting Thursday, the executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), said they are facing significant delays due to a lack of resources for complicated cases.

In an interview with 660 NEWS, Executive Director Susan Hughson said in some cases it is taking years to release findings, and that is unacceptable.

“We have been involved in investigations that have used an undercover operation, we have been involved in investigations that have relied on wiretaps or surveillance,” she said.

She said investigators are working as hard as possible but are also bouncing between numerous cases and they’re approaching a critical breaking point where it is no longer sustainable.

“We’ve had multiple teams called out to critical incident and go back home and by the time they get home, they’ve been called out to another critical incident. That’s only sustainable for so long,” Hughson added. “We are approaching a very significant breaking point.”

On a personal level, Hughson said she is incredibly proud of her team but it is also very taxing to think about all the people involved who are waiting for answers.

“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t think of the multitude of people that are still waiting for answers in any given file.”

In one such case, the family of a woman who plummeted to her death from a downtown Calgary balcony during a police investigation in 2019 told 660 NEWS last year that they are still waiting for some sort of solution, and have received little information from ASIRT.

Meanwhile, President of the Calgary Police Association, John Orr, said these delays hurt everyone and is undermining public trust in the police and oversight bodies like ASIRT.

“We’ve seen cases right now that are five and six years removed from the original incident and officers are still going through the process. It has negative impacts on, obviously, the affected persons and their families as well as the officers involved,” Orr said. “We’re in complete favour of having a system that is totally transparent so that the public has confidence in the system.”

Orr said some officers can go through a significant portion of their career while an investigation is ongoing, and that can end up affecting their work as it remains on their mind.

Hughson is calling for more support from the provincial government, as they especially need more investigators and lawyers.

ASIRT has been requesting assistance from the province for several years, but without any changes Hughson said they may have to adjust the mandate for the agency.

“From 2014 to 2016, we had an exponential increase in the number of files,” she said, and that was a point where ASIRT only reviewed investigations and would send a report back to police services who then had no obligation to implement their recommendations. In 2017, they changed the process which did decrease the workload temporarily.

“Since 2017, our number of investigations has always been in the sixties. If we’re on track this year, this year if we keep on the trajectory that we are currently on, we could finish the year at 100 files. And that’s not feasible.”

The organization has also been requesting an anti-corruption team since 2013, a request that has continually gone unfulfilled.

Hughson said the government is working hard to fill vacancies, and she understands there are many other issues and demands for resources that may limit the capability to help at the moment. In the short term, she does not see any assistance on the way.

“We are going to have to decide whether we decrease the number of investigations we do or the type of investigations we do by scaling back our mandate, or how they’re going to prioritize different investigations.”

At the end of 2020, statistics from ASIRT show they have a total of 78 cases, including 67 active investigations.