The people of Lethbridge, Alberta are fed up with their city’s police service after a string of abuses of power. From surveilling an NDP politician to forcing a domestic abuse survivor into a sexual relationship, the Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) are using their power to stalk, surveil, and abuse people with little to no consequences. It’s gotten to the point that the provincial government is threatening to dissolve the Lethbridge police force.
Surveillance of Shannon Phillips
A request for information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) shows that NDP MLA Shannon Phillips was under surveillance by the LPS for almost a year in 2018, when she was Alberta’s environment minister. Five police officers (including a deputy chief and staff sergeant) and one civilian employee searched her name in police databases eight times over the course of 11 months. These searches had no documented justification and were not connected with any investigation. It’s unclear why the officers made these searches, what the information was used for, or where it was spread. There’s currently no evidence that they were done as part of official police business, and it’s difficult to see what that official business could have been.
In 2017, an on-duty police officer in uniform took a picture of Phillips with some friends at a restaurant and sent it to another officer, who posted it online with a disparaging comment, inaccurately claiming they were discussing the shutdown of recreational off-road vehicle trails. The officer then followed Phillips’s friends in his car until he lost them at a traffic light and ran a search on their license plate. Before stalking these people, this officer told the other that he “would hate to see Phillips drive away from the restaurant and there was a reason to stop her.” This shows that his intention was to abuse his position to harass someone for having left-wing politics.
The two officers involved were lightly disciplined with temporary demotions. But it seems that their coworkers didn’t see any problem with their abuse of power. One of the involved officers and four others were caught posting and circulating memes disparaging LPS leadership for punishing these officers, even though they only got slaps on the wrist. Some of these memes were posted and circulated on work-issued phones while the officers were on duty.
Phillips won the right to appeal the discipline these officers faced and seek a more severe outcome after Alberta’s Law Enforcement Review Board ruled that the police chief’s process “lacked procedural fairness” and was “tainted and flawed, and lacked transparency.”
The request for information Phillips made also revealed that in 2016, there was most likely an attempt to drug her in a bar. Someone consumed a drink that they believe was meant for Phillips and didn’t remember anything afterwards. Despite the report to the police and the indication that the drink was meant for Phillips, Phillips was not told about it. She only found out years later when she requested information about the monitoring mentioned earlier. Gross incompetence on the part of the police involved is the only explanation for this other than a malicious withholding of information concerning someone’s safety.
Bullying of political opponents is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abuses by the Lethbridge Police Service.
Sexual abuse by head of victim’s advocacy group
In January 2021, the head of a victims’ advocacy group and retired Lethbridge Police Service officer resigned after his client, a victim of domestic abuse, complained that he had pressured her into a sexual relationship. Bill Kaye, the former officer in question, the head of Lethbridge’s Domestic Violence Action Team, abused his position of power to pressure a victimized woman into sex. He even told her that he would stop communicating with her while she needed help with her domestic violence court case because his wife had found out about the relationship.
If this predatory behavior wasn’t enough, the LPS, where Kaye had worked for 35 years until 2014, insisted on investigating the complaints of sexual assault internally. When the woman was giving her statement to the LPS, Kaye’s buddies refused to stop calling him “Inspector Kaye”, showing whose side they were on in the investigation. They refused to look at the woman’s email evidence of the sexual relationship and told her she was a victim of regret, rather than the victim of sexual assault. The police officer assigned to investigate the case had coached minor sports teams with Kaye and the officer overseeing the case had worked with Kaye as an officer and was Kaye’s co-chair of the Domestic Violence Action Team. Despite these obvious conflicts of interest, the LPS only relinquished control of the investigation to the RCMP when the CBC contacted the service to write an article about it, most likely to try to avoid the bad press.
Besides these egregious abuses of power, the Lethbridge Police Service has been a part of other ridiculous missteps. At the beginning of March, a photograph was taken of the Lethbridge police chief standing next to a “thin blue line” Canadian flag, the Canadian version of an American symbol that’s been associated with white supremacy and the right-wing storming of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. Since the George Floyd protests of 2020, this thin blue line symbol has become synonymous with apologism of police brutality. The RCMP has banned thin blue line patches while on duty. LPS’s use of the flag in their headquarters and lack of awareness shows either a severe disconnect from public awareness or a lack of desire to even appear to care about oppressed people.
The Lethbridge police also went viral internationally in May 2020, when they handcuffed a woman in a stormtrooper costume. She was a 19 year-old employee from a restaurant doing a Star Wars-themed promotion, but the police felt that her plastic toy gun presented enough of a threat to draw their real guns, force her to the ground, and handcuff her. If police are scared of a 19 year-old dressed as a character with famously bad aim, one can only imagine what Halloween night looks like in Lethbridge!
Dissolution of the Lethbridge Police Service
Public outcry at the abuses of the LPS has reached such a pitch that Alberta’s government was finally forced to step in. Alberta’s justice minister has told the police chief that the government will dissolve the LPS and replace it with another police force if he cannot produce a plan to improve the force. A plan was submitted on April 14 and is still under review.
The Alberta NDP has approved of this course of action, with its leader Rachel Notley saying, “We need to make darn sure that this kind of thing never happens again.”
People of Lethbridge will breathe a collective sigh of relief when those responsible for these controversies have been disciplined. But, they should not have any illusions that this kind of abuse will stop happening due to plans to “improve” the police force or to replace it entirely.
As anyone who has been paying attention to the news over the last few years will know, police abuses of power are not unique to the Lethbridge Police Service. Whether it’s police brutality during the George Floyd protests, the systemic misogyny, racism, and homophobia in the RCMP, or Red Deer police enabling the far right, it is clear that police unaccountably abuse their power all the time. And this makes sense, because the police everywhere are an unelected, unrecallable, and, therefore, unaccountable body.
The role of police in society is not to protect regular people, it is to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. This is easy for everyone to see. If a regular person has their car broken into, they are lucky if they can get a single police officer to show up, let alone investigate. But if there’s a large strike or left-wing protest, the police show up in droves in riot gear. The difference is that one of these events threatens the profits of the rich and the other does not.
As long as the police are doing their jobs protecting the interests of the rich, they will usually face little to no repercussions for their actions. They are usually free to use their power in their own interest, like pressuring people into sex. In the case of Shannon Phillips, surveilling a left-wing politician is a service to the ruling class. During the NDP’s term from 2015 to 2019, they faced an onslaught of red-baiting and pressure from the ruling class, with Kevin O’Leary leading the charge. The ruling class hates the NDP for what they represent: a party nominally for the working class connected with the trade unions. That several cops shared a similar hatred for Phillips was a happy coincidence for the ruling class. The only reason we’re seeing the government move in this case is because the Lethbridge Police Service was part of so many high-profile abuses that people were starting to lose faith in them and speak out against their excesses. So the government either wants the LPS to present a plan to lay low for a bit, or it will replace them with another police force with a new name that will inevitably have the same problems as the original.
The police service that would replace the LPS would likely be the RCMP, which has also faced its fair share of scandals in the last year. The RCMP is plagued with its own toxic culture and doesn’t represent any sort of improvement. Other examples of scandals involving the RCMP are officers violently attacking and arresting Chief Allan Adam and an officer sexually assaulting a woman in Edmonton. Clearly, replacing LPS with the RCMP would not prevent police abuse, it would only put lipstick on a pig.
The officers responsible for these abuses must be removed from their posts and face criminal charges. But as long as we have a capitalist system where the rich control the state and the police, we can expect these sorts of scandals and abuses to continue. Abuse of power and other problems associated with the police will continue as long as capitalism continues to exist. All police services, including the RCMP, are key weapons in the hands of the capitalists against the working class. The very reason for the existence of the police is to intimidate the working class, force the oppressed into silence, and crush any resistance to capitalist exploitation. The struggle against the brutality and abuse of power on the part of the police is thus intimately connected with the struggle against capitalism as a whole. The movement against police violence and racism will be strengthened if it understands this fact, and joins the struggle for a socialist society.