Policing the police

If you’ve got a beef with a Calgary cop prepare to wait

If a cop does something to you that he or she shouldn’t you can complain. The public may lodge formal complaints against police officers for any act of misconduct ranging from wanton brutality to being rude. The only limit is that you file your complaint within a year of the incident occurring. And it must be submitted to the correct department in writing. Complain all you want but there’s no guarantee you’ll like where it goes.

First you must complain to the Professional Standards Section. Calgary Police Service spokesperson Mary Ann Houston says “there’s many ways to express concern over an incident” yet the public often doesn’t know how to begin the formal complaint process.

“People call everywhere. Sometimes they call our number sometimes they call the office of the chief; sometimes they call their district office. I’m sure they call 266-1234 — it’s our non-emergency number. But the same message comes from all of us. It’s that we are more than happy to investigate any complaint; we just need it in writing…. So you can phone and say ‘I ran into the officer and this horrible thing happened and I’m angry’ but unless you either email us or provide us with a written complaint we can’t start an investigation” Houston explains.

Over the past 10 years there have been nearly 11000 official complaints made against the Calgary Police Service. But every year the vast majority — roughly 95 per cent — is either “resolved informally” withdrawn by the complainant or abandoned by the police when they can’t get in touch with the complainant. The Professional Standards Section formally investigates the cases that remain and ultimately submits a report to the chief of police Rick Hanson. At that point it’s up to Hanson to judge the merits of the case. He has the power to decide what if any disciplinary action will be taken against the offending officer. He can also dismiss it outright as frivolous.


In 2011 the most recent year for which records are available the chief ruled on 28 complaints. As a result he gave three reprimands and issued 10 warnings that will remain on the offending officers’ records for between one and three years. After that time they are removed. Houston says that the average complaint investigation is completed in six months but that can vary quite a bit depending on the seriousness of the allegation. There is no legal limit on how long an investigation takes.

If you disagree with the chief’s decision and still lust for justice after having passed through these stages you can appeal to the Alberta Law Enforcement Review Board. Every year an average of two-dozen appeals are brought here from across the province. Eight per cent come from officers who disagree with the punishment they received and the rest are from civilians. The review board dismisses two-thirds of these appeals.

Few complainants take it that far though many find the process frustrating even from the beginning.

Jack Kelly president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association of Calgary says his clients have been discouraged by the complaints system.

“Generally speaking they made their complaint their complaints were addressed by a written response and for that reason these clients didn’t really feel that they had a hearing or that the investigation was as thorough [as desired]” he says. “Without being able to go and speak to the investigator and develop some sort of personal rapport with the people that are dealing with the complaint you often have the frustration of thinking really that the complaint is just a procedural matter.”

Susan Nabors filed a complaint in June 2011 against four police officers alleging they arrested her without cause and used excessive force in the process. She says her complaint investigation is still open and that the progress reports the police are mandated to give her every 45 days are laughable.

“You get the exact same exact same wording every 45 days” she says. Nabors’s latest progress letter from the police reads as follows:

“This is a status report regarding your complaint filed June 29 2011. The internal investigation is continuing and once completed you will be advised of the results in writing. We will keep you informed of our progress every 45 days. In the meantime if you have any questions regarding this matter please contact Sgt. Rick Hogan at 403-428-XXXX. When addressing this matter please reference file #11-XXX.”

“That’s what you get when you file a complaint” she says. “I am finding it extremely difficult.”


When Shirley Heafey arrived in Calgary five years ago she came with an axe to grind. Heafey has spent her career monitoring police forces around Canada reviewing officer misconduct and public complaints in major cities including what she refers to as a nightmarish 10 years conducting civilian oversight of the RCMP. When she took the position as complaints director with the Calgary Police Commission — the civilian body that monitors the Calgary Police Service — she says she did so with expectations of another uphill battle to hold officers accountable for their mistakes.

“I was very cynical when I got here. I thought ‘God it’s going to be a lot of work and it’s going to be a big effort’” she says. She had big plans to pounce on issues that arise when police screw up. To her surprise the Calgary Police Service was already on it.

Heafey says she was also surprised by Calgarians’ unique enthusiasm for pointing out when a cop slips up.

“Recently somebody called up and said ‘I think a cop on his way to Tim Hortons was speeding. And really it didn’t look like there was an emergency he just ducked into Tim Hortons….’ This is what’s amazing about this city. They don’t let things like that go” she says.

Heafey insists serious events such as brutality or corruption allegations automatically get a formal investigation. She explains most public complaints are over relatively minor issues like rudeness and that complainants generally just want an apology. She says minor misconduct is treated seriously by Chief Hanson because if “you meet a rude cop then your assessment is they’re all a bunch of assholes.” The CPS doesn’t want that.


Calgary’s complaint review system has improved since its last external audit conducted in 2006 by Deloitte & Touche. That audit concluded that overall the Professional Standards Section was doing an excellent job.

“For those public complaints that go through a formal investigation we found those investigations carried out or managed by the Professional Standards Section… to be extremely thorough and in many cases to exceed what would be expected in relation to the seriousness of the complaint” the report reads.

The report found fault with inefficiencies in the system that often led the public to think the CPS didn’t care about public complaints. A labyrinth of internal procedures meant investigations were taking so long that complainants would wash their hands of the official complaint system and simply sue the police.

In 2006 auditors found the CPS wasn’t tracking complaint statistics therefore patterns that could point to larger problems or problem officers were missed.

Since then the Professional Standards Section has streamlined itself and adopted a system that does comprehensively track complaints. Heafey for one loves it.

“Every single piece of paper that has gone into the file is right on the system…. I just press a button and I have access to everything all the complaints that have come through” she says. As the civilian monitor of misconduct Heafey keeps a daily watch on complaints paying special attention to allegations of excessive force and incidents involving homeless or mentally ill complainants.

“If something catches my eye I’m used to this kind of thing I know when there could be problems” she says. “I go into the file and I look to see everything that’s happened in the file and I let the service know that I’m following up on this I’m watching.”

Heafey is happy with the CPS’s responsiveness. She says that when she has an issue the force acts on it quickly and that Chief Hanson is more accessible and quick to react to her concerns than anyone she has worked with before.

“I know a whole bunch of other chiefs across the country in all the big cities — this chief is a gift to the city. He’s very very involved” she says. She also has high praise for the willingness of officers to file complaints on their co-workers.

“I’ve never seen that before…. I think that’s really a good and healthy thing” she says.

Kelly however argues the Calgary Police Commission relies too heavily on being fed information from the CPS and even Heafey is quick to admit the officers and the system that monitors them is imperfect.

“Bad things happen. I’m not saying that they don’t. It’s the fact that the service responds right away when there’s something bad that happens instead of just sloughing it off and saying ‘oh well it’s no big deal let it go’” she explains.

“Some of the colleagues say ‘you know what like he was kicking that guy and the guy was down on the ground.’ Or ‘he was not moving in his chair and he came and he gave him a punch in the face….’ So a lot of the colleagues will say ‘we don’t want to be involved with a partner like that or colleagues like that.’ So they’ll report…. I do have a short list of jerks I watch” she says.

Allegations such as kicking and punching will be formally investigated and the officer in question could face disciplinary action. Less nefarious acts of misconduct or minor but serial problems will typically land the jerk in question in front of his or her supervisors where they are asked about the incident and whether they are having personal problems.

“They have a team that will go and meet with these guys and say ‘you’ve got four complaints here about rudeness in the last month… is something the matter? You got problems? You’re not feeling well?’ They try and remedy and try and help” she says. “A couple of them will say ‘I don’t care’ and they’re watched even more closely.”

Heafey says the traditional rationalization that wayward officers are merely reacting to stressful conditions is not supported in the CPS.

“It’s not one that I’ve seen in this police service. I’ve seen it in others…. Usually somebody’s having some kind of emotional problems maybe a mental problem maybe they’re burning out.”

Heafey says it’s for that reason the CPS encourages officers to use the wellness resources available particularly the confidential psychological services offered through the force and the wellness centre at the CPS’s Westwinds campus.

“If they don’t use [those resources] and then behave badly there are consequences. Even if they have these excuses. Like the chief says ‘we’ll help them but the behaviour if it was inappropriate there still has to be consequences’” she says.

Heafey believes that a force of 2000 officers is bound to have its bullies its burn-outs and members who just aren’t cut out for the job. She insists the service is progressive in the way it handles such officers giving them the resources to turn it around but making clear there are consequences including the possibility of criminal charges for misconduct. Heafey adds that court records of criminal charges against CPS members are available to the public but she doesn’t have them or statistics on how often it occurs on hand.


An additional problem with Heafey’s “list of jerks” is that it’s reliant on personal memory. By law official reprimands are removed from an officer’s record once the reprimand has expired. While it is on the record an officer may have difficulty getting a promotion; once it is removed the Police Act states it will not affect an officer’s professional future.

Heafey’s concern with the public complaint system itself is similar to Deloitte & Touche’s findings of inefficiency which she says is due to the Professional Standards Section’s lack of resources. She suggests the 30-person unit is too small to properly handle the public’s 1200-plus annual complaints and that its members quickly burn out. Should a career officer receive a one-year reprimand every 18 months it’s up to his colleagues and monitors like Heafey to remember they’ve been in trouble before.

She points specifically to the majority of cases that are informally resolved. She says internal investigators often fail to explain what an informal resolution is or that if a complainant agrees to go that route they won’t be contacted by the CPS after filing their complaint.

“If it’s informal then it’s done internally. And so I have people calling up and saying ‘hey I didn’t hear back….’ There needs to be more but it needs to be better organized. And possibly if they had more people they might have more time to do this better” she says. Heafey also admits a complaint that is recorded as having been “informally resolved” can sound suspect since the police do have a degree of power over complainants.

“I know the persons in Professional Standards who twist arms. They’re the first ones I watch” she says in reference to whether Professional Standards officers pressure complainants to agree to the conclusions of their investigation or to submit it to informal resolution measures rather than a formal investigation.

Nabors says her complaints investigators haven’t been twisting her arm but she doesn’t think they’ve been taking her complaint seriously either. Hers is a serious allegation undergoing a formal investigation. She recounts a meeting she had with her investigating officer nearly 18 months after she filed her excessive force complaint.

“He said ‘Susan the supervisor has talked to the offending officers and he has found no wrongdoing. Are you satisfied with our investigation?’ And I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said ‘He hasn’t even talked to me.…’ So you can see how they try and dissuade you from pursuing it” Nabors says. On her lawyer’s advice Nabors has stopped speaking with the Professional Standards Section about her case a choice which could see her complaint landing in the “abandoned” file. After waiting in vain for two years for Chief Hanson to take disciplinary action Nabors filed suit against him and the four officers in November 2012.

“Things happen that I don’t like” says Heafey. “But as soon as I make it clear to them… they react and do something about it…. That’s what makes it different. It’s not that nothing bad happens.” Heafey says she continues to hope both her office and the Professional Standards Section will receive the additional resources they need to prevent cases like Nabors from lingering until the complainant becomes cynical gives up or sues.