Updated 14:10 MST, March 2, 2015 – RCMP in Yellowknife admit residents were not properly warned about a reported sexual assault earlier this month.
They also concede a chance to warn the public that convicted sex offender Bobby Zoe had returned to the community was missed – a failure in which the Department of Justice is also implicated – because officers in charge did not know he was out of jail.
A reported sexual assault on February 1 triggered Friday’s admissions.
Police did not tell the public about that incident at the time, which they now say was an oversight.
Zoe, 34, was subsequently arrested and charged with that assault – but only after allegedly sexually assaulting another victim two weeks later, while the public still knew nothing of the first incident and had no idea a sexual assault suspect was at large.
“The Yellowknife RCMP regrets the failure to notify the public of the February 1 incident,” Constable Elenore Sturko told reporters.
Sturko said “inadequate communication” within the force meant managing officers did not find out about the February 1 incident in time to realize it had not been properly publicized.
She said steps have been taken to improve internal communication that will “greatly improve public safety when dealing with similar issues in the future”.
But the changes announced on Friday go beyond that incident to Zoe’s initial release from prison.
Questions had been raised in the legislature about the lack of public warning when Zoe was released from jail following a prior sexual assault conviction.
Police suggested they were not told of Zoe’s release, meaning – in effect – officers did not know Zoe was back on the streets and had no opportunity to issue a public notice (as they had in the case of another sex offender, Travis Casaway).
The Department of Justice, which is responsible for notifying police about the release of inmates, says Zoe was not released early and RCMP were given his anticipated release date at the start of his sentence, as procedure dictated.
However, this policy meant that if a prisoner’s release date were to subsequently change, RCMP may have no warning.
As a result of this month’s incidents, that policy has been hurriedly altered to ensure RCMP are now notified just before “high-risk offenders” are released, at the end of their sentence.
In a short statement issued on Monday, the Department of Justice said: “The director of corrections has issued an instruction to wardens to provide the name of any offender who may pose a high risk to the public, so the RCMP officials will be notified within 15 days of the inmate’s release date.”
“The director of corrections has drafted an interim policy,” Sturko had earlier confirmed on Friday. “This policy will ensure the RCMP receive notification of the imminent release of any offender who, in the opinion of corrections, may be a high-risk offender.
“This is now in effect.”
Public warnings are not automatically issued when high-risk offenders are released.
The decision to tell the public rests with a committee involving RCMP, the public prosecutor, corrections services and the solicitor-general’s branch of the territorial government.
The commanding officer decides whether an individual coming up for release should be referred to that committee, which then balances the individual’s privacy and other concerns against the public’s right to know.
“We definitely need improvement and it’s evident when we have stuff like this happen,” admitted Sturko.
“This improved policy will ensure we have adequate time and we are prepared to do a review to decide whether or not a disclosure to the public will be made.”
Note: An earlier version of this article suggested Bobby Zoe had been released early. The Department of Justice disputes this, saying Zoe “served until the expiration of his sentence according to law”. We’ve asked the department to provide Bobby Zoe’s date of release. However, the department says restrictions regarding privacy may prevent them from doing so.