Over the past few years, former provincial NDP Environment Minister and Lethbridge, Alta. MLA, Shannon Phillips, suspected she was being monitored by police.

In 2017, for example, a photo was taken of Phillips at a diner and posted to an anonymous Facebook account complaining about her government environmental policy.

Turns out, Phillips was right: The photo was taken and posted by a pair of uniformed cops, one of whom ended up following two of the people Phillips was having lunch with for several blocks, and searched their license plate. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

In August 2020, Phillips made an access to information request to see what police were up to, and she was given back a file with more than 9,300 pages. While the vast majority of it was redacted, making it easy to imagine the extent of the misdeed contained within, a few hundred pages weren’t. Those pages were given to the CBC, who published an article on them yesterday, and the details are shocking.

Turns out police were searching Phillips’ name in their database, which includes all sorts of personal information, with no reason. Const. Ross Bond, Const. Joel Odorski, Deputy Chief Scott Woods, Staff Sgt. Peter Christos, Const. Derek Riddell and civilian employee Alyson Dunsmore all searched Phillips’ name without logging an “investigative purpose” in 2018. (Her file was accessed other times with a purpose, like when she had her car stolen.)

They also neglected to tell her about a 2016 incident where someone at a bar was drugged with a drink that might have been intended for her.

It’s pretty shocking to see such a direct misuse of police powers against a politician, particularly one sitting in cabinet. Especially when that minister has had to have a security detail assigned to her because of the number, and intensity, of threats.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) started an investigation last month after Phillips received the documents and filed a complaint, and while the CBC was working on its story. ASIRT investigates incidents where the police have killed or injured someone, or where misconduct may be involved.

In theory, it’s a kinda-sorta police force that monitors the cops and holds them accountable for the bad stuff they might do. In practice, it’s an opaque body that doesn’t bring much in the way of justice. So, while the investigation could turn up some important information and lead to charges, it could also fizzle out into nothing.

And the way it has been handled has already raised red flags. For example, both Const. Keon Woronuk and Sgt. Jason Carrier were demoted a rank for taking and posting the photo of Phillips. Harassing and following a sitting minister because of her political affiliation, and all they got was a demotion. It seems like a much more serious breach of their duties, a ‘hand in your badge and your gun’ sort of situation.

But, that’s not really how police accountability works in this country.

If you’re a cop, you can punch a man in the head, who would die shortly after, with reinforced gloves, and be found not guilty. You can be a cop and threaten to kill a tenant of yours, and be demoted for a whole year. You can be the police chief of a force that committed massive Charter breaches by indiscriminately rounding up protestors and end up federal public safety minister. You can kill a baby with your service weapon, and not be forced to talk to investigators.

Some Canadians like to pretend that police are the neutral instrument of the law. A force of neutral logicians, applying the law in both letter and spirit, governed not by lowly motivations like grievance and spite, but by loftier things like justice and truth.The Lethbridge police for, for example, claims they’re for “courage, safety, and service.”

In reality, so many cops are petty meatheads, out to intimidate and harass the public they’re supposed to serve.

How else can you explain this response from Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh, where he told CBC, “It also would be highly improper for [the CBC] to report any conclusions about who did or did not conduct a database search without investigative purpose until the (ASIRT) investigation properly has run its course.”

It’s not quite a threat, but it does have a hint of menace in it, don’t you think? The chief is upset the CBC contacted the people who looked up Phillips’ information, and is likely none too happy their names were printed.

In nothing Mehdizadeh said to the CBC were there any signs of apology or contrition. Nothing like a ‘if something improper was done those people will be held accountable’ statement. Just a bit of a not-quite-subtle warning off.

And this is the problem with police, because this example follows a pretty standard pattern: they do whatever they want because they rarely face any serious consequences. They feel no reason to be accountable to the public, so why would they promise sanctions against one of their own? If not even the chief is willing to lay down a hypothetical marker, what hope is there for real accountability?

Police are given extensive powers on the notion that they use them within certain bounds. But if police are going past those bounds, and the bounds are deeply flawed to begin with, something needs to change. The police can’t be reformed.