Edmonton city police paid more than $175,000 over five years to settle lawsuits involving officers — a tiny amount when compared with other cities and one that critics say stems from legislation that makes it exceedingly difficult to sue police in Alberta.
Settlements offer a glimpse of another, rarely seen side of the police accountability debate.
In the U.S. especially, it’s common for big city police departments to spend tens of millions of dollars a year settling lawsuits, according to the Washington Post.
In Canada as well, a 2013 Toronto Star investigation found police in that city paid $27 million to settle lawsuits over the span of a decade. Vancouver spent over $1 million settling lawsuits over five years.
Edmonton city police, on the other hand, paid just over $177,000 to plaintiffs between 2013 and 2017. And 40 per cent of that came from a settlement in a single lawsuit initially filed over a decade ago.
But in 2018 alone, Edmonton’s police force spent four times that — $746,636 — in legal fees.
There are numerous factors that play a role in how often police forces get sued. No two cities are alike, and each police service has its own culture, legal environment and relationships with the communities it serves. Some services will aggressively fight lawsuits, others will make a cost benefit analysis and settle.
But lawyers who specialize in such cases say at least part of the reason for Edmonton’s small settlement numbers is provincial legislation that bars lawsuits against police from the most accessible provincial court.
The impact of those rules is “enormous” on people seeking compensation for alleged mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement, said Avnish Nanda, a defence lawyer.
“They deprive many people of the ability to hold police officers accountable for their actions.”
The 14-year lawsuit
A police misconduct case in Alberta typically goes one of three routes.
The most grievous incidents are usually dealt with by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), which investigates major misconduct cases and cases where someone dies or is seriously injured by police.
The second is the internal police complaints process, which can result in an officer facing a disciplinary hearing. People unhappy with the outcome of that process can appeal to the independent Law Enforcement Review Board.
The third, and perhaps the least scrutinized, is the courts. Someone seeking to sue police for an unlawful arrest, excessive force or negligent investigation can file a statement of claim against the service and specific officers. But documents obtained by Postmedia show those complainants face a difficult road.
In June 2017, Postmedia filed a freedom of information request with Edmonton police for a database of civil cases that resulted settlements.
While public agencies are supposed to fill requests within 30 days, EPS requested numerous extensions, and the request took nearly two years to complete.
The documents show that most civil claims against police in Edmonton are unsuccessful. The EPS was served with 85 claims between 2014 and 2019, only a handful of which resulted in either a plaintiff winning at trial or a settlement.
The largest payout in a successful case involved an excessive force allegation. The plaintiff, whose name was redacted, sued police in 2003 and received a $75,000 settlement 14 years later, in April 2017.
Typically, a settlement is a payment in lieu of a trial, and does not require a defendant to admit liability. Edmonton police numbers, however, include any time money was paid to a plaintiff. Settlements sometimes prohibit the parties from discussing the matter publicly.
Some of the unsuccessful Edmonton claims include:
- In 2014, a plaintiff arrested under the Mental Health Act alleged police used excessive force. The claim was discontinued 16 months later.
- A man who claimed police put him in a chokehold, kicked him and smashed his head into the pavement after he fled from police during a 2007 arrest. In 2016, Edmonton police were awarded over $14,000 in costs after the case was dismissed for long delay.
- A 2009 lawsuit, discontinued in 2016 after more than six years, alleged police were negligent in their investigation of the death of the plaintiff’s father, who died after falling down stairs.
- The court dismissed the case of a plaintiff who said officers failed to properly control a police service dog, awarding Edmonton police over $7,000 in costs.
Calgary pays far more in settlements than Edmonton. The police service there paid $1.03 million in settlements between 2013 and 2018. A city spokesperson cautioned against comparing amounts between cities, saying the data might not be “apples to apples,” but did not elaborate.
Usually, someone suing for less than $50,000 — an amount that would cover damages in many police misconduct cases — would sue in provincial court. The Alberta provincial court’s civil branch is often called small claims court or people’s court because it is relatively easy to navigate.
But Alberta’s Provincial Court Act specifically prevents it from hearing claims against peace officers, judges or justices of the peace for anything related to their official duties. Those lawsuits must go through the province’s superior court, the Court of Queen’s Bench.
The provision dates to 2000, when it was added as part of the Justice Statutes Amendment Act by Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservative government. Based on legislative records, there appears to have been no debate on the issue. A spokesperson for provincial court Judge Dave Hancock, a former premier who was justice minister at the time, said he did not recall the background of the provision.
Nanda, who has sued police agencies six times in the past three years, said suing someone in Court of Queen’s Bench is significantly more complicated — and expensive — than in the lower court. Often the awards and settlements are still below the provincial court limit.
“Provincial court is meant for people to initiate and manage their own lawsuits. You don’t need lawyers,” he said. “In QB, you absolutely need a lawyer.”
Nanda gave the example of a client suing for $30,000 over an injury sustained during an arrest. He said the lawyers’ fees to even get a case to trial in Queen’s Bench can easily top that. Provincial courts, on the other hand, do more to walk a plaintiff through the process.
“There’s so much more procedure in Court of Queen’s Bench that if you don’t have any money, it makes it almost impossible,” said defence lawyer Erika Norheim.
Tom Engel, another defence lawyer, says the “vast majority” of police lawsuits are dismissed because the plaintiff runs out of money, goes missing or otherwise gives up.
“These things are defended rigorously by the Edmonton Police Service, they make offers that are far below what the claim would be reasonably worth, and they basically grind the plaintiff into submission,” he said.
As a result, few firms will take police misconduct lawsuits, said Engel.
Former Edmonton Police Association president Maurice Brodeur, however, argued police services are often right to vigorously defend lawsuits — even if paying a settlement might be a cheaper way to resolve things.
“It should be difficult to get money off of any kind of complaint,” he said, adding doing otherwise would open the door to a wave of frivolous litigation. “It should be tested.”
In Alberta, city police officers are protected from having to personally pay damages resulting from a lawsuit about an on-duty incident. But current police association president Michael Elliott said the threat of a lawsuit still affects how officers do their jobs.
“Some members go ‘I could have used force in this instance, but I was afraid because I don’t want a complaint or (to) get sued,’” he said. “If a member starts second guessing themselves, that potentially could (put) them at risk.”
Nanda said he’s tried to challenge the section of the Provincial Court Act that restricts lawsuits against police, on the grounds it infringes on the Charter’s access to justice rights. However, the right case hasn’t come along, and the client could ultimately lose.
“There’s significant risk,” he said.
Engel, for his part, said the law creates a double standard.
“If I’m walking down Whyte Avenue and I punch a cop in the head … that cop could sue me in small claims. If I’m walking down the street and the cop punches me unjustifiably, I can’t sue him in small claims.
“It’s completely unfair, and it’s an access to justice issue.”
How much do cities pay in settlements involving police?
A few words of caution: these numbers are not apples to apples. Some cities include only cases that were settled before trial, while others include any amount paid out to a plaintiff. Cities might have different definitions of what constitutes a lawsuit and what constitutes a settlement.
Edmonton’s numbers include any time money is paid to a plaintiff, so these could include both settlements and awards after a loss at trial.
- 2013: $8,000
- 2014: $21,380.99
- 2015: $0
- 2016: $62,818.92
- 2017: $85,000
- 2018: Totals were not available by publication time.
Calgary’s numbers include cases that started with a statement of claim and ended in a settlement before trial. The year is the year the payout occurred — not the incident itself.
- 2013: $397,995.30
- 2014: $176,700.80
- 2015: $196,982.32
- 2016: $251,473.28
- 2017: $13,790.69
- 2018: $0
The amounts the City of Vancouver paid to settle lawsuits against the Vancouver Police Department:
- 2013: $24,658.83
- 2014: $105,488.81
- 2015: $47,016.42
- 2016: $552,624.94
- 2017: $372,619.99
- 2018: $73,717.38
According to the Toronto Star, Toronto police paid $27 million to settle civil suits between 2000 and 2013. A police service spokesperson told the newspaper that their insurance company will sometimes calculate whether fighting the lawsuit is worth it, or whether settling is more cost effective.
Again, not apples to apples, but here is how much some U.S. cities paid to settle police lawsuits, according to a Washington Post summary of reporting on the issue.
Chicago: Paid $84.6 million in fees, settlements and awards in lawsuits in 2013, per the Chicago Sun-Times.
Baltimore: Baltimore paid $5.7 million between 2011 and 2014 on excessive force lawsuits, per the Baltimore Sun.
New York: Per a 2012 Bloomberg report, New York City planned to spend $735 million that year settling lawsuits or paying awards.
Dallas: $6 million between 2011 and 2014, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Read the EPS document
Some of the legal terms: Settlement: A settlement typically refers to a civil case that’s resolved without trial. Usually, that happens when defendant pays a plaintiff an agreed upon amount of money. That does not necessarily mean the defendant is admitting responsibility. In the EPS document, those cases are referred to as “filed discontinuance and executed release.” Page 9 of the release is a breakdown of costs in a case EPS lost at trial. Discontinued: When a person who’s suing ends their action. Dismissal order: When a court orders a case dismissed, either because a plaintiff hasn’t sufficiently advanced their lawsuit in a certain amount of time or because the suit is obviously frivolous. With/without costs: If something is discontinued or dismissed with costs, it means a person who is suing and withdraws or has their action terminated must pay the defendant’s legal fees.