7 issues facing the RCMP commissioner

After several years of scandals that saw public inquiries, parliamentary committees and task forces examining the Mounties, the man now leading the force has a big job ahead of him.
The RCMP, highly visible at ceremonial events such as The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's visit to Yellowknife this summer, provide police services federally and in jurisdictions across the country. The next RCMP commissioner faces several challenges. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Bob Paulson was named RCMP commissioner Nov. 16, succeeding William Elliott, who stepped down over the summer and starts a new job at Interpol Nov. 21.

After several years of scandals that saw public inquiries, parliamentary committees and task forces examining the Mounties, Paulson will have a big job ahead of him. Many of these tasks go to improving public confidence in the nation’s police force — perhaps the biggest task of all.

The foremost issue is dealing with recent allegations by female Mounties in B.C. and Alberta of sexual harassment in the force, and criticism of the RCMP for how their complaints were handled. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the issue would be the first priority for the new commissioner, and indeed Toews and Paulson announced Nov. 16 that the Commission of Public Complaints Against the RCMP would investigate the allegations. Paulson also ordered a "comprehensive review" of outstanding complaints of harassment to ensure they are being addressed, that offenders are dealt with and victims are supported.

Here are seven more issues facing Paulson as he takes on his new role:

1. Unionization: The government is appealing a 2009 Ontario court ruling that struck down the section of the RCMP Act that prevented members from forming a union. In the meantime, unrecognized groups have been given access to the Mounties' email system and the right to post information about their activities on the RCMP intranet and bulletin boards. The appeal is scheduled to be heard Nov. 21.

2. Oversight: Calls for civilian oversight at the RCMP aren't new but grew louder over the last five years, especially in the wake of several controversial in-custody deaths. A 2007 task force led by former Ontario Securities Commission head David Brown told the government the Mounties need an oversight model with powers to summon witnesses and compel testimony, and where all findings would be binding. In June, 2010, the federal government introduced legislation to create an RCMP Review and Complaints Commission, but drew criticism because the agency's recommendations wouldn’t be binding. There have also been requests for an RCMP board of management. Elliott supported the proposal, which would require legislation, yet nothing has ever materialized.

3. Internal discipline: The RCMP started making progress in 2008 with the creation of an Adjudicative Services Branch, yet officers still complain about delays where allegations hang over members' heads for months without being dealt with. On the other hand, critics say the punishments are often too soft. Mounties are sensitive to those criticisms and the next commissioner will undoubtedly have to deal with calls for a more transparent disciplinary system.

4. Carrying out further reforms from the Brown Task Force: After a pension fund scandal — and amid allegations of a cover-up — Brown led an investigation and found there was a need for a major shake-up at the RCMP. Six months later after his initial report, he and a task force reported again. Along with urging them to create a civilian oversight body, the task force recommended making the RCMP more independent from Parliament. None of the biggest changes they recommended have been implemented.

5. Retention and recruitment: The force has been trying to recruit more women, aboriginals and visible minorities to better represent the Canadians they police. The recruiting push is new, however, and it remains to be seen whether it will be successful.

6. Culture: Mounties knew about it for years but it was only through the publication of Brown’s report that the general public learned about the RCMP's so-called penalty-box culture where people who questioned authority were bullied, seconded to other government departments or sent on interminable French training. The RCMP created an Office of Professional Integrity, with ethics officers in every region. Some members report improvements in the culture, but many say more work needs to be done.

7. Do more with less: Every federal department and agency has handed in reports on how to cut five or 10 per cent from their budgets. The RCMP likely won’t be able to avoid a cut.