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A blurring of lines

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The Manitoba government has introduced proposed changes to the Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act that would allow police officers to be identified by their badge number instead of their name as part of annual public-sector compensation disclosure reporting.

The act currently requires all public-sector employees, including police officers, who earn more than $50,000 a year to have their name, salary and position disclosed publicly on an annual basis.

The province and the Winnipeg Police Association say the change would better protect police officers from criminals who use the information to target officers at their homes and off duty. In other words, criminals use the information to get the correct spelling of an officer's surname and then use it to seach out where they live.

WPA president Mike Sutherland says the change would take away an easy-to-access source of information away from criminals, or anyone else, from trespassing into the private lives of police officers. The request for the change first came from front-line police officers, not the union.

"We know that there are some very driven and very intelligent folks who are the opposite side of the law and sometimes those people want to take out their revenge or whatever on the officers they feel are responsible for holding them accountable for the crimes that they've committed," Sutherland says.

"Not only does it compromise the personal safety from an off-duty perspective, but it also compromises potential undercover operations," he adds.

Sutherland says over the past few years some offenders have become bolder at intimidating police officers, and that it is only getting worse.

"The rules of what things used to be in terms of a healthy respect between on and off duty, I think those lines are more and more blurred all the time," he says.

The 2012 Compensation Disclosure report for the City of Winnipeg is available online, and I used it to search for the addresses of three police officers I met during my time covering crime for the paper. The officers worked in either the gang unit or in homicide. I also searched a few names at random.

What I found: Nothing. I struck out.

However, given the nature of the unlimited information the Internet can provide, it could be possible to find out where a particular officer lives by doing multiple searches, like finding their Facebook profile or whether he or she has ever sold something on Kijiji or a sports club they belong. A phone number could also pop up.

Sutherland says another aspect to this is that there's a faction out there who hate police. They don't target a specific officer. They target any officer, and the city's public sector compensation report could help them do it.

"It's not too difficult for someone who just wants to find the easiest target," he says.

In the past I wrote about people in law enforcement who were targeted by criminals; a police officer who had their house firebombed and a Crown attorney who was confronted at home. There have also been instances of police officers followed home after work and accosted on the street when off duty, say when they're strolling through The Forks and meet up at random with someone they've arrested.

So if the proposed change the Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act provides an added level of security for officers and their families, the better it is for all of us.

We can still learn how much some officers are paid--some earn more than $120,000 because of rank, the unit they're assigned and overtime. The homicide, gang and organized crime units typically pull the most overtime. It's something that just comes with the territory in Winnipeg.

But I also know that criminals and their chums can also learn an officer's name through court documents like affidavits and search warrants, and during court proceedings like bail court and preliminary hearings.

"I don't think there's any measure that's going to be guaranteed 100 per per cent full proof," Sutherland says. "I guess from our perspective and our members' perspective is why make it easier for people.

"There has to be some measures to try to limit those vulnerabilities and that's why we're trying to walk the line between respecting the principle of disclosure as far as the public's right to know how much civil servants are being paid. Our issue is just not to further a scenario where it becomes patently easy to know where to look to try dig up some more information."

Further to: My Canadian Press colleague Steve Lambert sent me this link on Twitter, showing that Winnipeg police aren't alone in Canada in their concern about safety and disclosure of their salaries. An Alberta Crown prosecutor went to court earlier this year to block disclosure of Crown prosecutors' salaries. The unidentified Crown attorney won a temporary injunction pending the court's decision. 



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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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