How to reinvent the RCMP

A new RCMP accountability bill will help Commissioner Robert Paulson weed out the 'bad apples.' But as visiting scholar Michael Kempa argues, that is only a partial solution for fixing Canada's national police.

The case for civilian oversight of Canada's national police

A bill making its way through Parliament promises to overhaul the RCMP by making individual police officers more accountable for their actions.

But recent history in Canada and elsewhere tells us that improved discipline and a stronger independent complaints process on their own are not enough to get the job done.

Bill C-42, known as the Enhancing RCMP Accountability Act, will empower Commissioner Bob Paulson and a revamped complaints commission to toss out those officers Paulson has called "rotten apples."

In an open letter written to Canadians on 28 May, Paulson asked for this overhaul and said that he is "trying to run a modern police force with a discipline system that was current 25 years ago."

In an interview with CBC News on Tuesday, the commissioner went on to say that the sexual harassment problems within the force have largely overshadowed his first year on the job.

Full accountability

Professor Andrew Goldsmith of Flinders University in South Australia, one of the world's leading authorities on transforming police culture, argues that having civilian oversight of police operations and management is essential for "addressing the full spectrum of accountability."

You can hear more of his views here, in an interview with author Michael Kempa.

And in this regard, the proposed RCMP accountability act probably has to be seen as a step forward.

But truly opening up the notoriously clam-tight police culture and demonstrating real change to an increasingly skeptical public will require a much bolder leap to push civilian oversight right down to the core of management and operations.

This has been the approach successfully taken in Northern Ireland, where the police are understood to be "operationally responsible" to their civilian masters.

On this, Canada's proposed legislation provides nothing new of importance.

Beyond the bad apples

As for the allegations of sexual harassment that have dominated recent headlines, many complainants said that their supervisors ignored or derided them — which indicates a deeper culture within the force that doesn't reflect today's modern, inclusive values.

But internal harassment is not the only issue here. There have also been damaging public incidents involving the apparent use of excessive force and allegations of inefficiency and poor co-operation with other police and security services.

RCMP morale is reported to be extremely low and there will be no easy fixes for these deep and connected problems, which corrode the machinery of one the world's largest and most complex policing organizations.

From addressing noise complaints in Chilliwack to dealing with international organized crime and foreign policing assistance, the RCMP covers aspects of municipal, provincial, federal and international policing across many jurisdictions in Canada and abroad.

Improving efficiency and rooting out cultural rot in what is quickly approaching a 30,000-member — $4 billion annual budget — behemoth is a daunting task.

RCMP Commissioner Robert Paulson, at a change in command ceremony in Ottawa in December 2011. Wants the authority to weed out the force's 'rotten apples.' (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

The good news is that there has been no shortage of strategies from reputable bodies on how to untangle these problems. The bad news is that somehow these reforms seem to have always fallen off track.

For example, the 2007 task force into the RCMP, headed by David Brown, a prominent Ontario lawyer and former chair of the Ontario Securities Commission, argued that the Mounties should be overseen by an independent board of directors.

He was envisioning a group of civilians with business management skills that would be tasked with reviewing and offering input on administrative and organizational matters.

This would force the police to open up and explain their practices to professionals with trained eyes for efficiency and effectiveness.

Paulson's immediate predecessor, William Elliott — the first non-Mountie to head the RCMP — supported this approach, as did many academics, lawyers, civil rights groups and police professionals.

But Elliott ran into a firestorm of internal protest over his leadership style and personality, and nowhere in this newest accountability legislation can this proposal for a professional board of directors be found.

Civilian oversight

Of course, having a civilian management board to deal with efficiency is one thing. But the Mounties also need to show on a regular basis that their operations serve the public interest — not the government interest, and not the police interest.

Nowhere is this more clouded than in the domains of national security and public order.

The big lesson from the commissions that looked into the Air India bombing and the Maher Arar rendition is that Canada's hodge-podge of security agencies, which includes the RCMP, operate within their own silos, particularly as far as oversight goes.

And until this is addressed, the concerns of a skeptical public, at the very least, may never be allayed.

The same can be said about overseeing the RCMP role in securing public order at major events, such as economic summits.

From the hosting of the APEC conference in Vancouver in 1997 to the more recent events surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto in June 2010, the perception was left that the Mounties put government and economic interests ahead of the safety of citizens.

Would a civilian board of directors, at arms-length from the government of the day, change that perception? And, more importantly, police practices?

The civilian board originally proposed by Brown would not have had that kind of role on the operational front.

But the recent June 2012 report that examined the Toronto Police Service role at the G20 summit, written by former associate chief justice of Ontario John Morden, calls for precisely this notion of operational responsibility.

The objective is not to allow civilian managers to directly interfere in how the police carry out their extraordinary daily responsibilities.

But it is about forcing police brass to debate suggestions and provide evidence for why they believe certain strategies are likely to work best in the public interest.

Evidence-based debate between police and their civilian masters can drive the selection of best practices. 

Again, the example of Northern Ireland shows us that groups of citizens that are bitterly divided in their politics are capable of implementing informed policing policies, which nearly everybody but a few militants can get behind. 

And sticking to best practices can help police and their civilian directors stand up to any political interference.

It's a gift that keeps on giving in that insulating the police from any government meddling drives home the message that the police work for citizens. And working for citizens helps align police culture with society's values.

In these ways, operational responsibility brings us closer to the architect of modern policing Sir Robert Peel's historic ideal that "the police are the public, and the public are the police."