Edmonton police chief orders investigation of 'humiliating' photo of drug arrest

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee has ordered a formal professional standards investigation into the posting of a photo of two officers posing with a shirtless and handcuffed man who was arrested while allegedly high on drugs.

McFee ordered the investigation on Monday, the same day CBC News first revealed that Const. Mike Roblin had posted the photo, which critics called humiliating, on his Instagram account. 

"This matter was brought to the attention of Chief McFee on Monday, June 1, 2020, and he immediately determined it would be investigated by the Professional Standards Branch," the Edmonton Police Service said Tuesday in a statement to CBC News.

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"It is believed that another member took the photo, which is also part of the investigation," the statement said.

"Also, [Professional Standards Branch] is attempting to contact the affected person, so they can be a meaningful participant in the process."

The statement said it is EPS policy not to name officers who are the subject of an investigation unless they are charged.

Roblin posted the photo on May 9. It had been deleted from Roblin's account but a citizen captured it and complained to the service's Professional Standards Branch on May 11, and filed a formal complaint on May 12. 

The caption under the photo stated: "This fine young man was so thrilled with the service we provided him that he wanted to commemorate the moment with a picture. 

"Just kidding, he was so high he thought he was on Mars."

The caption also contained the hashtags #summertimepolicing and #dontdodrugskids.

Abrupt about-face by Edmonton police

The formal investigation represents an abrupt about-face by the police service, which had earlier told CBC News it was dealing with the matter internally, and informally.

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel said he found it "disconcerting, and I imagine [McFee] is somewhat disconcerted, to be ambushed by this and not having even been consulted about what the police service should do about this."

Engel had previously called the behaviour of the officers "despicable" and said he believed it was meant to humiliate the arrested man.

Engel, who chairs the policing committee of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association of Alberta, told CBC News last week that if McFee did not order a formal investigation, then the province's director of law enforcement should step in and order one.

Without a formal investigation, there would be no transparency about what if any discipline was meted out to the officers, he said. 

Engel said it is unacceptable to deal with this informally because Roblin has a serious disciplinary record. 

A judge found Roblin guilty of assault causing bodily harm for a 2015 incident in which a fellow EPS member was punched at a wedding party and suffered a serious concussion.

The judge granted Roblin a conditional discharge but he later pleaded guilty to discreditable conduct at an internal disciplinary hearing on Jan. 31, 2017. 

Roblin is also one of several officers now being investigated by the Professional Standards Branch for conducting a search without a warrant of the property of a well-known inner-city slum landlord and convicted drug dealer. 

In 2019, the Law Enforcement Review Board ordered the police to re-investigate after it found the original investigation was substandard.

On Tuesday, Engel said he should not have assumed that McFee knew about the incident. He said he is relieved but not surprised that McFee ordered the formal investigation because he said the chief "has shown himself to be sensitive to people who are disadvantaged in our society, especially Indigenous people."

Dr. Hakique Virani, a specialist in addiction and public health at the University of Alberta, told CBC News the photo would undermine attempts to get people who are struggling with addiction to seek help. 

"This is not the type of thing that helps us earn their confidence and trust. And I worry that it will push those folks further out to the margins and not give us access to help," he said.

Virani, who also has an inner-city clinic, said it was "disappointing because I do know some police officers who are sincerely trying to understand and help people who are struggling with substances [abuse], poverty or homelessness." 

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