Also Kill the Messenger: Police Attacks on Whistleblowers

Public perceptions of whistleblowers have evolved over recent decades to a point in which whistleblowers are viewed as important, even crucial, contributors to democratic practice as well as key players in developing safe, healthy, and just workplaces, communities, and societies. This has been underlined by the significant role of workplace whistleblowing around issues of health, safety, and corporate criminality as well as by the role of public whistleblowing such as the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

One sector within twenty-first century society in the Canadian context that takes a decidedly reactionary and regressive approach to whistleblowers and whistleblowing is, not surprisingly, policing. In this police are similar to other sectors of the state. Indeed, policing at the highest levels, views secrecy, obfuscation, non-transparency, and outright distortion as its natural, and proper, order of things. This has not changed with public demands for openness or with the development of supposedly independent investigations units to deliver some modicum of public oversight and transparency.

So it may not be at all surprising, but still comes as rather repulsive, that the chief of the Calgary police and ranking members of the Calgary Police Association are openly condemning, even threatening, officers who speak with reporters without authorization of their bosses. Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin goes so far as to suggest that he is working to “root out” officers who provide information to media confidentially. In his words: “That’s part of my quest. I want to find out who” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

This active concern with rooting out truth tellers within the force comes as someone revealed confidentially to CBC News that the officer involved in the fatal shooting of David McQueen in January 2016 was, at the time he killed McQueen, already under an open investigation for killing another man, Anthony Heffernan, less than a year before. Rather than expressing concern over this grim fact and seeking to do something about it, the chief has made it his mission to go after, not the killer cop, but whoever made it known that he was a multiple killer.


Love it or Leave It: Police Associations against Whistleblowers

If police chiefs are aggressive in their desire to root out whistleblowers, police associations are downright extremist. This is the case with the force in Calgary. Paul Wozney, a director with the police association and the editor of the association magazine published a vitriolic defense of the chief’s pursuit of whistleblowers. His editorial supports Chief Chaffin’s decision to send a “strongly worded” memo warning officers that they face stiff consequences for leaking information to the media (Fletcher 2016).

Wozney is fairly spitting blood when he rages in his article: “Don’t you think that the member you blabbed about, who responded to two extremely high risk calls and had to make split second decisions in the interests of their own personal safety and the safety of the community, has a right to feel safe with their own organization?” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

He continues more forcefully: “It disgusts me that one of our own members (sworn or civilian) would choose to make such a selfish decision” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

The us-versus-them mentality that is a staple of policing, and contributes to police violence against civilians is on full, brutal display in Wozney’s self-righteous rant: “To be blunt, we have enough butt-holes in the media, the community, and on the defense-side of the bar taking shots at us. We don’t need our own members taking shots at each other in our own magazine” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Wozney further makes clear that only compliant “yes sir” voices will be allowed in the association’s magazine. No room for conscientious objectors, dissenters, or simple truth seekers.

He takes the authoritarian approach that no criticism can be offered and only acceptance of the status quo is permitted. This is the “my way or the highway,” “love it or leave it,” “my country right or wrong” psychology that underlies, and reinforces, authoritarian institutions like the police. In his words: “If you are some sort of unhappy employee, then I suggest you leave the organization or join the fire department” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Stunningly, officer Wozney cannot imagine any reason why an officer would want to provide information about police wrongdoing to the media. Especially since “the media sure doesn’t pay for this information” (quoted in Fletcher 2016). Why else would a cop do the right thing except for pay?

While Wozney refuses to speak with media about the aggressive approach taken in his magazine, Police Association president Howard Burns stands by the publication and its editor. In his view: “I don’t necessarily disagree with the article. You have to appreciate that this magazine is meant for the 2,100 members of the Calgary Police Association. So, it’s not really meant for public distribution, although it’s fine for it to be in the public eye” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

The police association notes that members who provide information to the media without authorization could be disciplined and even face termination. So much for respect for whistleblowing. They prefer officers go through authorized channels such as the Calgary Police Services media relations wing or through the union.

Association head Burns notes that the leak in the Heffernan case will not even compromise the investigation since it is concluded. He admits:

“I think in that particular case, that investigation, my understanding is it’s been concluded and is before the Crown in Edmonton. So I don’t think it’s going to interfere but it certainly can be confusing for the public when they hear mixed messages and they start to hear about confidential sources. It’s probably not the appropriate way to do business” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).


Dubious Assumptions

Police officials, both in the association and in management operate under a dubious assumption that secrecy does not damage their reputation. They seem oblivious to the damage done by ongoing practiced secrecy. At the same time they replay another of their famous myths, this one that openness and forthright reporting puts officers in danger (playing into another myth that everyday policing is particularly dangerous). The Calgary chief suggests: “When it gets released without proper attention to details and policy, it puts people at risk. It puts the reputation of policing at risk, and it can really harm the work we do and the members and the organization” (quoted in Fletcher 2016). The key part of this attempt at dissembling is the note that truthfulness really puts the reputation of police at risk. And indeed openness, honesty, and transparency about policing would certainly lead many civilians to more fully question the institution—a necessary and justified outcome.

While being controlling and secretive they also manage to convince themselves that they are open. According to Calgary’s chief: “We do have a very open policy and a very transparent way to talk to media around here, generally speaking. But when it involves operational issues or personnel discipline issues that are within the organization, there are things that we want to have some controls over” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Incredibly, observers suggest that the Calgary force is more open, One can only imagine the shadow activities of previous regimes if that is in fact true.


For the Families

Whatever the police chief and the police association might prefer, the public and the family of Anthony Heffernan are quite thankful to whoever leaked the information about the police killer of Heffernan and David McQueen.

Victim Anthony Heffernan’s father Patrick Heffernan, argues for greater police openness and accountability and is rather shocked by the tone of the police association’s defense of secrecy. In his view: “The police, they should be open. The public should know what’s happening. This notion that they are to protect each other … rather than necessarily having the truth out … I think that’s totally wrong” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

It is telling that the Heffernan family, let alone the public, still has not been informed of the names of the officers responsible for killing their son. In the view of the family the investigation into their son’s killing by police has lacked transparency throughout.

Anthony Heffernan’s brother, Grant Heffernan, reported that the family only learned that the officer who shot and killed his brother was also involved in the January 25 killing of Dave McQueen through the CBC News report and reporter Meaghan Grant. Grant Heffernan’s assessment of the police interaction with the family is stark: “They basically lied to us” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

According to Grant Heffernan the whistleblowing was crucial and necessary. In his words: “That is the only way we knew, and if a source in the Calgary police wants to talk to the media, they should be able to do that” (quoted in Khandaker 2016). This seems like a straightforward position, one that the public is supportive of.

The great significance of whistleblowing for the families of victims of police killings is clear and unequivocal. According to Grant Heffernan: “We want to know this information. We have been in the dark with a lot of what’s been going on with the investigation. There’s a lot of things we don’t know about and the Calgary police won’t tell us. To us, this was important information” (quoted in Fletcher 2016).

Grant Heffernan was left incredulous and repulsed by the responses of the chief and the police association. He reported: “They basically said there’s going to be a witch hunt for the guy who came out to the reporter. We’re very grateful this guy did come out and had the courage to stand up for us” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

Reading Wozney’s article was a shock. In Haffernan’s view: “What kind of language is that if you’re in charge? How can you use that kind of language in a respectable position? It’s unbelievable to me” (quoted in Khandaker 2016).

The Heffernan family is at this point hopeful that a murder charge, almost unheard of in cases of police killings of civilians in Canada will be laid against the as yet unnamed officer.

In the Canadian state context, federal law protects whistleblowers who report illegal or troubling behavior, but only in situations in which they report the case of wrongdoing to a state law enforcement agency. Workplace protection is not extended to those who provide whistleblowing information to media. Media leaks have indeed resulted in criminal investigations and prosecution against both journalists and whistleblowers in the Canadian context (Khandaker 2016).


Further Reading

Fletcher, Robson. 2016. “Calgary Police Chief on ‘Quest’ to Root Out Confidential Media Sources from His Ranks.” CBC News. March 31.

Khandaker, Tamara. 2016. “Canadian Police Chief Warns His Cops to Stop Snitching to the Press.” Vice News. April 1.

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