How it all went bad for the RCMP ... and how to get it good again
I am not a Mountie-hater. Far from it.
I grew up on the Prairies in the era when the local RCMP detachment was the cornerstone of every small community -- the Mounties and a Chinese restaurant with arborite counters and revolving stools were required institutions.
I was taught to venerate the RCMP.
So any criticism I offer is offered out of esteem for the institution and a hope Mounties will not become what University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper once called "bureaucrats in uniform." I don't want them to become unionized letter carriers with guns and badges.
To the extent the RCMP has drifted away from its iconic days (and it has drifted a lot), the cause is fourfold: The force is too closely integrated into the broader civil service (it is no longer an independent police force), it has too many missions and not enough funding, personnel or training to do them all, its discipline policies are too union-like making it nearly impossible to fire bad-apple officers and the force has lost its credibility with a lot of ordinary Canadians because Mounties have become Ottawa's gun cops.
The need to enforce the Liberals' 1995 Firearms Act has made the Mounties suspicious of nearly every law-abiding Canadian who owns a gun. (That's at least four million citizens, despite federal claims that just two million Canadians own guns.) Conversely, it has made millions of gun owners — most of whom should be natural supporters of the police — wary of their local RCMP officers.
There is no underestimating the extent to which Bill C-68 has driven a wedge between police and the citizenry, especially in rural Canada and the West. (Even though the registry is history, the bill's licensing and onerous safe-storage provisions remain in place.)
Of course, the Mounties' problems go way beyond the gun law that has been in effect for the past 15 years. Public confidence has also been shaken by botched, high-profile incidents such as the death of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant, who died after being Tasered by Mounties at Vancouver International airport in October 2007. Subsequent attempts by the four officers involved and their superiors to cover up what went on added to the public's mistrust.
Charges against sworn members of the RCMP for drunk driving, spousal abuse (even death) and excessive force against prisoners have piled up in recent years, too. Claims by over 200 female officers of extensive sexism in the ranks haven't helped, either.
In a poll published this week, 51% of Canadians surveyed for QMI Agency believe officers have used excess force, while 54% are convinced sexism is rampant within the RCMP. Significant pluralities are also convinced problems within the force are "widespread" (43%) and are not being exaggerated (42%).
Bob Head, a former assistant commissioner for the Northwest Territories, pegs the beginning of the current decline on the reorganization of the RCMP in the mid-1980s. At that time, the force was brought under the direct authority of a federal cabinet minister — then the solicitor general, now the minister of public safety. The RCMP commissioner became a deputy minister.
According to Head, this imposed on the force a host of civil service rules — such as for staffing and budgeting — which in time infected the force with a civil service mindset. It also pulled senior officers into the political process and encouraged them to cozy up to the government of the day in hopes, for instance, of smoothing the way for budget increases.
As far back as 1999, Head was warning that incidents such as the Airbus affair would become more common because of the too-close relationship between the commissioner/deputy minister and the cabinet. (The Airbus affair was a groundless, but very public, investigation by the Mounties of former prime minister Brian Mulroney over allegations that he took kickbacks on a Canadian purchase of Europe's Airbus passenger jets.)
The U. of C.'s Cooper voices similar concerns. "Cops like to do things that are easy," he explains. They also like to do things that please their political masters, especially where police are too directly intertwined in the "day-to-day political process."
When the Liberals were considering mandatory gun-owner licensing and a universal firearms registry in the mid-1990s, senior Mounties advised against it. They believed it was unworkable and would do nothing to stop gun crime, which they understood was carried out mostly by drug dealers, junkies and other criminals. They even questioned the gun-crime statistics the Liberals were using to claim there was an urgent problem that needed solving.
But because the RCMP was just another branch of the civil service, successful commissioners eventually went along with the scheme. The logical end point was seen last week in High River, Alta., where Mounties went door-to-abandoned-door seizing any firearms they could find from flood-evacuated homes. Over time the force's bureaucratic thinking has convinced Mounties that law-abiding gun owners are as much a threat to public safety as street thugs (and easier to go after).
The force's civil service mindset is also evident in its inability to deal with "bad apples," such as Don Ray and Monty Robinson.
Ray is a former head of the polygraph unit at Alberta headquarters in Edmonton. Last year an internal disciplinary board found he had violated his conduct oath seven times between 2006 and 2009. Several times during office hours, Ray used his polygraph interrogation room to have sex with a civilian RCMP employee. He also used an unmarked cruiser to travel to sites where the pair had sex, sometimes in the cruiser. And he frequently pressured uniformed female subordinates and recruits to "socialize" with him.
After admitting to these violations, Ray was a demoted one rank level from staff sergeant to sergeant, put on 10 days unpaid suspension and transferred to B.C.
Robinson, the officer in charge at YVR during the Dziekanski Tasering, ran a stop sign a year later while driving home drunk from a kids' birthday party and killed motorcyclist Orion Hutchinson. For more than three years, Robinson was on paid leave until he was found guilty of obstruction of justice and could, finally, be fired.
Both former Commissioner Bill Elliott and his replacement, current RCMP boss Bob Paulson, have asked Parliament to amend the RCMP Act to give national and regional commanders more discretion to deal with bad apples faster and more fully. As yet, there is no indication the government intends to act.
The Mounties are also overcommitted. With their responsibility for local policing (for as much as 70% of the country, the RCMP are the community police service), drug interdiction, anti-terrorism intelligence, commercial fraud and so on, the RCMP do what 17 separate agencies in the U.S. do.
Their responsibilities are simply too broad for their budget, their number of sworn personnel and their training. For instance, where once the Mounties' commercial crime squad was the envy of the world — with in-house forensic accountants, computer specialists and tax lawyers -- repeated budget cuts have gutted its operations.
Being close to the political process hasn't helped. Indeed, being just another bureaucratic department has made it easier for successive governments to cut RCMP spending -- easier than it would have been had the RCMP been a standalone force with independent authority and command structure.
How is it considered so vital that the auditor general and the federal privacy and information commissioners be independent of the political process that they must be officers of Parliament, but not so the commissioner of the RCMP? Surely the job of policing the country fairly, competently and without bias is at least as vital as determining if the Human Resources Canada has an obligation to release 40-year-old census records.
The greatest source of hope that the Mounties can be reformed has to be the commitment and spirit of its ordinary, uniformed members. They are mostly well-intentioned, even when their actions are misguided — as in the High River gun grab.
In our survey of attitudes towards the RCMP, Mounties past and present were seemingly more critical of the current situation than ordinary Canadians.
But the first step in the long process of recovering the force's lustre has to be separating it, again, from government and politics.