National Post (Latest Edition)
Police increasingly refuse to name murder victims
Critic blasts policy as ‘privacy run amok’
Regina Police announced this week they would no longer release the names of homicide victims. Aside from unique cases, anyone murdered in the city would henceforth remain anonymous until their name is revealed in court or by family.
The proposed change, which came after a particularly murderous year in the city, drew an immediate expression of “concern” from Saskatchewan’s justice minister. “My preference is that the information be released,” he said Wednesday.
And indeed, by Thursday Regina Mayor Michael Fougere announced Chief Evan Bray had reversed the decision, at least temporarily, pending a discussion with the privacy commissioner.
If it goes ahead with a “no naming” policy for homicides, Regina would be taking a position that is increasingly in vogue among Canadian police forces, most notably in Edmonton.
Police in the Alberta capital used to release the names of virtually anyone murdered, but in early 2017 they adopted a policy of only releasing victim’s names if officers deemed it critical to an ongoing investigation.
A particularly surreal effect is that the city’s police continue to issue public appeals for information on murders while providing only the vaguest details of the crime.
This week, for instance, Edmonton police reported that a 25-year-old male had been fatally shot in the city’s southwest. However, they did not provide his name or any details about him. Police also withheld the exact location of the shooting, noting only the nearest intersection.
The Alberta RCMP have also begun to be much more reticent about releasing the names of people murdered in the province’s smaller communities. Four Albertans killed in March 2017, for example, were never identified by the Mounties.
Although no police force has embraced a no-names policy quite as strongly as Edmonton, scattered examples exist across the country. In 2015, for instance, Peel Regional Police withheld the name of a 22-year-old man beaten to death with an air hose at his job.
Police will even withhold the identities of people they’ve shot themselves. Last month, a man was shot to death by police during an attempted arrest at a Nanaimo, B.C., ferry terminal. To date, the public does not know who he was because the B.C. RCMP refuse to release his name, age or even why he was in Nanaimo.
Police maintain that “no naming” policies are simply following the law. The Regina police’s plan to no longer release the names of homicide is informed by new privacy laws that came into effect in Saskatchewan on Jan. 1. In Alberta, police cite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which they say only gives them permission to release personal information “for the purpose for which the information was collected.”
Thus, in cases where the police believe they have already bagged the killer, such as in a domestic murder suicide, they will say that releasing a victim’s name “does not serve an investigative purpose.”
In a 2015 framework document, the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police concluded that “the mere fact that the individual has been a victim of homicide” does not warrant their name being released. Still, the document gives wide leeway for name publication provided it’s in the “public good.”
Edmonton police are taking a particularly strict reading of the act, asserting that they are breaking the law unless they “only release as much personal information as necessary to solve crimes.” Calgary police, however, have adopted no such policy, despite being governed by the exact same legislation.
Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the policy, calling it “Kafkaesque” and “privacy run amok.”
His chief criticism is that the policy prevents the public from knowing who among them is being killed.
“Without knowing who the victim is, the media and public may be deprived of important information about the social context of the homicide,” he told the National Post.
The policy has its defenders. Jane Orydzuk, an Albertan who lost her son in an unsolved 1990s shooting, said it protects the families of murder victims from unwanted media attention.
“I’ve heard of cases where (police) want to make public the names right away and the families want to wait to give them time to process it,” Orydzuk, who is president of the Victims of Homicide Support Society in Edmonton, told Postmedia earlier this year.
In Edmonton, the policy has resulted in some pretty extreme instances of information being withheld from the public. At the end of 2017, there came a murder in Edmonton for which the police released no information whatsoever. Reporters were told only that someone had been murdered and that it was the city’s 41st homicide.
“We’re at 41, as of today,” Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht said in a year-end interview.