"Untie our hands," say top cops

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Police chiefs call for new powers to fight gangs

Alberta’s top cops asked federal members of Parliament this week to give them new powers to stop organized crime.

The federal standing committee on justice and human rights held a meeting on organized crime Monday at the Delta Edmonton Centre Suite Hotel. The meeting was an information gathering session that will lead to a report to Parliament on the subject later this year.

Organized criminal groups run sophisticated drug, fraud and human trafficking networks using the latest technologies, said Rick Hanson, Calgary’s chief of police, and current laws make them tough to crack. “It’s virtually impossible to run an organized crime trial of any complexity in a province like Alberta.”

He and other officials at the hearing called on government to update its laws for disclosure, lawful access and search and seizure, especially when firearms are involved. “If you’re serious about getting guns off the street, then untie our hands and let us do what we’re paid to do.”

Tied up in red tape

About 20 per cent of Alberta’s 5,400 prisoners are known gang members, said Jan Fox, Alberta district director for Correctional Service Canada. Most of them are in aboriginal or Asian gangs.

Gang members make regular use of chat rooms and cellphones that police cannot easily tap under existing legislation, Hanson said. “Law enforcement needs to be able to access subscriber information for cellphones and IP addresses without a warrant,” he said. Communications companies should be required to build back doors in their systems so cops can tap transmissions when they do have a warrant.

Hanson also criticized disclosure laws for being too broad, noting how criminals now use evidence disclosed in court to counteract investigative techniques.

Disclosure is the Achilles’s heel of many gang cases, said federal prosecutor Greg Rice. The law now requires them to disclose all evidence that could be relevant to the defence, which, in practice, means everything. This can put informants’ lives at risk and scuttle cases altogether. “Unless something is changed, this will continue on.”

Edmonton police chief Michael Boyd blasted the courts for being too soft on repeat offenders when it comes to bail. “It’s hard for me to fathom how a person could be out of custody operating in the community on 10 existing bails,” he said, but it happens. “This puts the public at risk, and the system is therefore not accountable.”

Chance for reform

Most gang members in Alberta are not getting rich off the drug trade, Fox said; most are violent and poorly educated, spending their cash on family or drug addictions. “We need to look at the root causes of prevention before [these people]get to my doorstep.”

Hanson made a similar argument. “We’re filling our jails, all right, but we’re filling them with the mentally ill.” He called for tougher sentences for serious crimes such as gun use and new sentencing options for the sick, such as mandatory drug treatment. “We’ve turned [jails]into the insane asylums of 40 years ago,” he said, and mandatory treatment would get to the real causes of many prisoners’ behaviours.

Parliament is set to reintroduce laws this session that would give police better access to online communications, said Brent Rathgeber, MP for Edmonton-St. Albert. “Our jails are full of people,” he said, echoing Hanson, “but the wrong people.” He was intrigued by the idea of mandatory treatment as a solution.

Rathgeber agreed with Boyd’s concerns about bail, but said reform would be tricky: they’d have to balance a person’s risk of re-offending against their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. “We have to tighten bail provisions. It might be as simple as forcing justices of the peace to provide written reasons why they release somebody.”

The committee will issue its report to Parliament later this year.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.