Will Edmonton police change policy on naming homicide victims?

Two and a half years after Edmonton police began selectively withholding the names of homicide victims, Chief Dale McFee is set to unveil what’s been described as a new framework.

McFee commissioned the Saskatchewan-based Community Safety Knowledge Alliance to study the issue and prepare a report. That report is expected to be released Thursday afternoon online, after McFee unveils the findings and his recommendations in a public presentation to the Edmonton Police Commission.

Last month, McFee promised there would be a change to the current approach of selectively withholding names.

“We are going to do something differently that’s consistent for sure,” McFee said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be one way totally or the other. But it won’t be the same as it looks today.”

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee is expected to unveil a new framework on naming homicide victims at Thursday’s police commission meeting. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney said the report authors contacted him about the issue and he shared his thoughts.

Now he hopes the new policy will reflect his views.

“I hope that there will be a clear policy indicating there will be a general practice of releasing the names of homicide victims,” Penney said. “There should be a very clear rule that the presumption is for disclosure.”

“The case-by-case discretion of especially front-line officers to decide whether or not to release the name has to become a thing of the past,” he said. “We have to stop doing that.”

There have been 15 homicides in Edmonton so far this year. The names of five victims (33 per cent) have been withheld. That percentage was lower than 40.5 per cent in  2017 and 39 per cent in 2018.

The three most recent homicide victims have all been named, even in a case where an arrest had already been made. A standard paragraph used by police in news releases, saying the decision to withhold or make public the name was done for investigative purposes, was also absent in the past three cases.

Penney said that could be a hopeful sign.

“It’s a limited data set,” Penney said. “It’s hard to make inferences from just a few number of recent cases. But to the extent that does represent perhaps a new approach with the new chief, then I would welcome that.”

Meanwhile, for the first time in two and a half years, the Calgary Police Service withheld the name of a victim in a domestic murder/suicide case. They said a woman in her 70s was killed before her son in his 50s took his own life. At the request of the family, the names were not released.

Alberta RCMP have withheld the name of one of 18 homicide victims so far this year. According to RCMP spokesperson Fraser Logan no charges have been laid, “and there is no investigative reason to do so at this point.”

How things got to this point

Here’s a look at how the issue has evolved over the past two and a half years.

  • January 2017: The first time EPS decided to withhold the name of a victim in a domestic murder/suicide case
  • May 2017: EPS police Chief Rod Knecht said he felt “pretty comfortable” about withholding names. “Our critical focus is on the victims,” he said. Knecht asked other Alberta police chiefs to develop a consistent framework on the issue.
  • August 2017: The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police said it agreed in principle with new rules, but in practice nothing had changed.

  • January 2018: Knecht defended the EPS interpretation of policy, and told CBC News, “I think we’re following the rule of the law.”
  • October 2018: Knecht’s contract ended
  • December 2018: Incoming chief Dale McFee made a commitment to conduct review

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