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Time for civilian governance at RCMP, watchdog says in harassment report

RCMP's dysfunctional workplace culture threatens police operations, officer safety, report says

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Ian McPhail, chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, says a change in the governance of the national police force is needed in order to address ongoing concerns about harassment and bullying within the force. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

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The RCMP has done so little to reform its dysfunctional workplace culture that the Mounties' watchdog is calling for the federal government to introduce civilian governance of the national police force.

"The RCMP will not be able to bring about the necessary change required to address its dysfunctional culture on its own," wrote Ian McPhail, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

"A change in governance is required, and such change must come from the outside."

The report into workplace harassment in the RCMP states that bullying and abuse of authority within the force is so bad, it threatens its very ability to police the country.

"Not only have members indicated to the commission that criminal investigations have been undermined by the harassing and abusive conduct of supervisors, but it also appears likely that workplace harassment is aggravating chronic problems of under staffing within the RCMP," wrote McPhail.

Among his recommendations:

  • The public safety minister direct RCMP to recruit civilian experts to take over senior non-policing roles.
  • The RCMP institute rigorous, mandatory leadership development programs for its executives.
  • Mounties should hire skilled investigators from outside RCMP to conduct harassment investigations.
  • Improve harassment policies, procedures and training.

During a news conference in Ottawa to formally release the report, commission lawyer Emma Phillips said the RCMP has been slow to change despite repeated calls for action. She said there has been a "distinct lack of follow-through and accountability."

"The initiatives that have been introduced have been short-lived or ad hoc," she said. "And unfortunately the effect of these one short-term initiative after another is to erode the confidence of the members that any real change will ever actually be realized."

RCMP watchdog on harassment in the force 6:29

Retaliation and reprisals are prevalent, with officers reporting being marginalized, transferred, denied use of a police car or time off.

Some have been denied backup or been left alone at a crime scene. That, she said, could endanger the lives of officers.

"There is a concern that safety of officers could be affected," she said.

Phillips said RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson received a copy of the report several weeks ago. She said the blame can not be pinned on any one single commissioner or senior management team, and that the situation has persisted and evolved over generations.

In a statement posted online late Monday, Paulson said many of the report's observations "are not, in my view, reflective of current RCMP environment, policies or processes."

He added that cultural change takes time, and the RCMP continues to refine its approach to grievance, conduct and harassment processes.

Speaking to reporters Monday, after testifying before MPs for the last time before his retirement next month, Paulson said he doesn't support civilian governance of the RCMP as he's yet to see any proof it would help remedy the harassment problem. 

"It's the linkage between the harassment issue as it's understood today for example, and the wholesale governance change of the force...I'm having trouble making that jump."

Threats and abuse

While the report strays from a strict examination of harassment, the commission did review 264 harassment complaints filed between 2013 and 2016.

Typical complaints reviewed by the commission included verbal insults and abuse, transferring officers to another detachment as punishment, entering a Mountie's home without legal justification, repeatedly dropping in on people who are off on sick leave and tampering with police reports to undermine an officer's credibility.

The report also highlights how preoccupied many members are with being subject to reprisals for reporting harassment.

Some detailed retaliation they had experienced first hand. More than one explained how supervisors denied them back-up on calls, sometimes involving weapons. 

CBC News has heard several similar stories from Mounties over the years but has been unable to report them as officers explained they were too scared to speak publicly.

Sexual harassment

One senior manager told the commission's investigators that bullying isn't restricted to those in lower-ranking positions either.

"The bullying is rampant and out of control at this level. There is no such thing as transparency or fairness...The fear of threats and repercussions to anyone who speaks up or out is very, very, very real at this level."

RCMP report recommends civilian oversight 1:20

And despite an overhaul of the internal disciplinary process in 2014 that Paulson said would help him fire 'bad apples' more efficiently, members told the commission how some managers use the threat of formal discipline as a tool of intimidation.

While the commission reports only a small number of complaints about sexual harassment, McPhail wrote it is still a serious problem in side the RCMP.

"It is well established that sexual harassment is grossly under-reported in most workplaces, and given the hierarchical nature of the organization it is likely that under-reporting is a particular problem in the RCMP."

And while the force has introduced a myriad of short-term initiatives to address the dysfunctional workplace, the commission found that with little follow-through or accountability, little has changed.

A prime example, the report says, is the RCMP's 2013 Gender and Respect Action Plan, where Commissioner Bob Paulson committed to progress reports every 180 days but only ever carried out one such report.

According to McPhail, harassment is taking a huge toll on employees including many Mounties taking sick leave.

The commission tried to find out how many RCMP employees are off duty sick due to harassment and stress but it learned the force doesn't track those numbers.

McPhail said it should, given research showing how other organizations with workplace bullying have high absentee rates.

Lack of leadership

Another problem identified in the report is how, unlike the armed forces, the RCMP doesn't have a professional officer corps.

"Unlike other policing organizations or the Canadian Armed Forces, which hire civilian experts to, among other things, manage human resources, the RCMP continues to assign such positions to senior uniformed members, regardless of their ability to fulfill such functions and duties," the report reads.

RCMP leaders, the commission found, are resistant to meaningful cultural change, perhaps because their very careers benefited from it.

"Many managers and supervisors lack essential management skills, and the organization suffers from a failure to foster a culture of leadership. This is particularly apparent from the numerous complaints by RCMP members and employees of abuse of authority, as well as the use of fear and intimidation by managers and supervisors," the report says.

Another report released Monday on the RCMP and harassment echoes McPhail's recommendations.

Sheila Fraser, Canada's former auditor general, reviewed four cases where women sued the RCMP for workplace harassment. She too is recommending civilian governance in the form of a board of management, which would professionalize non-policing leadership roles and provide "more informed oversight of the administrative functions of the RCMP."

Fraser also recommends an external, non-RCMP unit to investigate Mounties' harassment complaints as well as an independent, external review of the RCMP's health services branch and grievance system. She says "it is apparent that significant improvements are needed."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the reports makes it "all too clear" the RCMP can and must do better to address the longstanding problems of harassment.

"The prime minister gave me the mandate to ensure that the RCMP is a healthy workplace, free from harassment and sexual violence," he said in a statement. "Both he and I are strongly committed to whatever action is necessary to help RCMP members, trainees and employees feel safe and respected amongst their colleagues and supervisors."

Civilianize the RCMP

The Commission report notes its findings are hardly ground-breaking. There have been no shortage of studies on changing the RCMP's culture going back decades, including the 2007 report from government-appointed investigator David Brown.

But this time, the commission suggests three potential models.

  • Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces: A deputy minister is responsible for administration and financial oversight while the chief of the defence staff oversees operational matters.
  • New York City police department: The force is led by civilian commissioner and the chief is responsible for police operations
  • Civilian board of management: A panel of qualified citizens provide general direction to the police service and enhance public accountability

Any one of these would require an overhaul of the RCMP Act and would likely trigger the politically uncomfortable conversation about whether the RCMP should be in the contract policing business. 

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