LETHBRIDGE, Alberta. – It’s been a particularly tough year for the police chief of Alberta’s third largest city
But Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh said he was fully aware of the issues before taking the top post in July 2020.
âI knew the challenges in this department and in this city, and a lot of those events that bring a lot of bad press to this department,â Mehdizadeh said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I didn’t come to this with blind eyes.”
The police department has faced a lot of controversy in recent years.
Last year, two officers were temporarily demoted after a review determined that Shannon Phillips, a member of the provincial legislature from the NDP, as environment minister in 2017, was watched and photographed at a restaurant . The officers involved were concerned about changes made by Phillips regarding off-road vehicles in nearby wilderness areas.
Separately, five officers and a civilian were investigated into allegations of inappropriate database searches of Phillips while she was in cabinet.
The force was also criticized in May 2020 for the violent withdrawal of a citizen wearing a “Star Wars” assault trooper costume and wielding a toy laser blaster. An independent review said officers had not acted inappropriately.
âThere are some events that have really given this organization a lot of negative publicity,â Mehdizadeh said, âbut a lot of these eventsâ¦ are from 2016 to 2018, and all of the recent allegations relate to historical events.
“As a result, we have many inquiries.”
Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu ordered the Lethbridge Police Department to clean up their act or risk being disbanded. He demanded an action plan to address everything from recruiting to monitoring to changing the internal culture of the department.
“If I concluded that the force leadership and the commission were not serious about solving the problem, I was ready to do whatever was necessary to solve the problem,” Madu said earlier this week.
“They came back to me with a course of action that was acceptable and I approved.”
Madu said he would wait and see what a public inquiry by the Law Enforcement Review Board of Alberta reveals before deciding on the success of the changes.
He noted that he does not blame the current leader.
âLet me be bluntâ¦ I think this stems from the previous direction there,â Madu said. âI am very sympathetic to the current chef.
âHe was brought into the midst of these problems. None of these issues are part of his watch. It’s a problem he inherited.
The president of the Lethbridge Police Association said the issues that have become public have been brewing for years.
âIt has been miserable for us for more than last year. I think what most people don’t understand is that what they’re seeing now is based on things that came before. Nothing happens in a vacuum, âsaid Jay McMillan.
âA lot of our own internal problems arose from a time when there was a different leadership in place, or a lack of leadership. It sort of created a culture here that was not healthy and probably unable to withstand 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.
âYou can look at yourself in the mirror as an organization or as an individual and identify some things that you can do a little better,â he said.
âA lot of things in this action plan were things that had already been put in place, so it wasn’t in response to public attention. It was not in response to the Minister of Justiceâ¦ the organization had already realized that certain changes had to be made.
Mehdizadeh said his job was to “fix these things”.
âIt’s a very historic story and it wasn’t fair to really judge the organization based on what happened a few years ago,â he said.
âI don’t have the power to make arbitrary decisions to get rid of people or fire people. There are legal processes that we must adhere to, that we must respect and comply with in order to move forward. “
Sanctions have been imposed on a number of officers following the release of inappropriate images, including images of senior executives pasted onto the bodies of characters from “Toy Story” animated films.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 4, 2021.
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press