LETHBRIDGE – The city's police chief says no two cases are the same, so there cannot be a blanket policy on releasing the names of homicide victims.
However, Rob Davis says police services have to follow privacy laws, which is why the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police (AACP) has developed a decision framework.
"Some homicides may require us to release the name for investigative purposes, to generate leads," Davis told reporters Thursday, Aug. 3. "Others may not meet that threshold . But what this does is give us that standardized framework, so as we have that case-by-case framework we'll all be operating in a similar fashion throughout the province."
Davis said it might come as a surprise to many people, for example, that someone's privacy rights continue to be protected for 25 years after their death. Their family members are also considered victims entitled to protection.
“In the past we've been quite open and transparent with releasing the names of victims... That's not going to change. This just really sort of formalizes the process we'll go through to reach that decision.”
– Police Chief Rob Davis
Davis admitted it's a fact of life for every police service that misinformation can circulate on social media, and it's one of the reasons they've always tried to keep the public informed.
"I've always been an advocate of transparency and sharing information, as I'm allowed to," he said. "I think when privacy legislation first came around, we were, as chiefs and officers, 'what does it really mean?' And now as we sit here, a number of years later, we're starting to really comprehend the impacts of privacy legislation."
Seven main points in framework
The framework sets out seven main points of agreement by AACP's members. It acknowledges that the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act considers the fact someone has been a homicide victim "personal information." This information may be disclosed by a public agency if it is not an unreasonable invasion of privacy, and if it is reasonable and necessary.
In each case, releasing the name must be considered important enough to justify violating the individual's privacy. There is a separate justification for naming a victim when it's necessary to the investigation.
Another section of the act allows for the release of information, when there is a clear public interest. But the mere fact someone has been a homicide victim does not by itself meet that threshold . The fact a name has become public through court records involving an accused person isn't necessarily the best argument either.
When none of the above applies, each case may be evaluated based on whether it is in the public good to release the name. Police may then consider factors like police transparency, public confidence in an investigation, heightened concern or interest from the public due to a case's seriousness, personalizing the crime and recognizing the desire for people to pay respect to the victim, and providing dignity to the deceased.
However, the wishes of the victim's family must also be considered, as well as whether a release would identify other people, whether it would help correct misinformation that is circulating, whether it's about to come out from another official source, and whether such a release should be delayed out of consideration for the family.
Police might also consider whether the nature of the crime has a greater or lesser impact on public safety, i.e. whether the victim and accused knew each other or were strangers.
Policy to be adopted by LPS
Members of the association worked with legal experts to create the framework during meetings this week in Calgary, and LPS will now integrate it into local policy.
"In the past we've been quite open and transparent with releasing the names of victims, and we've felt it was what was best for public interest and in the name of the investigation," Davis explained, adding that in some instances they might keep the name back for a day or two until the investigation progressed.
"That's not going to change. This just really sort of formalizes the process we'll go through to reach that decision."
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