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Lethbridge Police Service submits revamped improvement plan following controversies


CALGARY — The Lethbridge Police Service has delivered a revamped plan to the province's justice minister aimed at fixing problems that led to a threat that the service could be disbanded. 

The department in Alberta's third-largest city has, among other things, faced allegations of officers conducting illegal database searches for personal use. 

Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh delivered the plan to Justice Minister Kaycee Madu in mid-April after the minister warned there were serious problems and change needed to happen immediately. 

Madu said any plan had to address everything from recruiting to oversight, would need benchmarks and contain a timeline. He said it would have to be made public and, if not, the force could be dissolved. 

The April plan included improvements in ethics, accountability, management of conduct files, annual ethics training and a review of the police service's social media policy. 

It also included developing better leadership in current and future police members and restrictions on access to database searches. 

Madu sent that plan back because he said there were `"substantive deficiencies'' he wanted addressed by June 25. 

He wanted clarification on the problems the service is trying to address, what the police service intends to accomplish, and specific outcomes that will be achieved. 

The minister also demanded information on the recruitment of new officers and for the service to address its internal culture. It must include details on the completion of outstanding misconduct investigations and disciplinary actions, as well as address access to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). 

A spokesman for Madu confirmed the new plan was provided to the Justice Department on time.

"We have received their amended report, and we look forward to reviewing it," said Alex Puddifant, Madu's press secretary.

"While we acknowledge the effort that Lethbridge Police has put into the plan they previously submitted, it had a number of significant and substantive deficiencies, which is why we gave them specific input on what they need to incorporate in their action plan to address issues that have been raised."

Mehdizadeh told a town-hall meeting earlier this month that safeguards have been added to the local database, including a mandatory field so anyone using it has to provide a reason why. There's also a warning statement reminding users each time what the database is meant for. 

He said there will be quarterly audits of the database ``to make sure people are using it for only police activities and nothing else.'' 

Mehdizadeh said the use of social media is also being addressed to make sure it is ``proper and respectful.'' 

The police service has been the focus of numerous controversies, both past and ongoing 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 vehicle use at nearby wilderness areas. 

Separately, five officers and one civilian are being investigated for allegations of conducting improper database searches on Phillips while she was in cabinet. 

In March, five Lethbridge police employees were suspended with pay as part of an investigation into the circulation of inappropriate images, reportedly including pictures of senior police staff pasted onto the bodies of characters from the animated ``Toy Story'' movies. 

Last year, the force was criticized for the violent takedown of a citizen wearing a Star Wars stormtrooper costume and brandishing a toy laser blaster. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2021. 

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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