Military cops struggle to enforce mental health laws

The military is looking for ways to plug a frustrating, potentially risky, loophole when it comes to the jurisdiction of military police — because MPs do not have the authority to enforce certain provincial laws.

MPs had to call local officers for help 10 times over 18 months in Western Canada

A member of the military police and a medical technician gather information from a resident of one of the flooded areas in Aylmer, Que., in May. Enforcement of certain provincial laws fall outside the authority of military police, as do certain traffic safety provisions. (Cpl Gabrielle DesRochers/Combat Camera)

One night in early May, a troubled soldier wandered into the military police detachment in Edmonton and laid out a detailed plan to kill himself.

Instead of taking the person immediately into custody and conveying him to hospital, the officers were obliged to call the RCMP to the base so they could take charge.

The man, at one point, tried to leave while they were waiting and the MPs were reduced to pleading with him to stay.

We don't have the same authorities as a provincial constable.— Brig.-Gen. Rob Delaney

The Mounties arrived in time and the soldier was taken to hospital.

It is a dramatic illustration of the conundrum facing military cops, who have authority over Criminal Code violations but cannot enforce specific provincial laws across the country, even on Canadian Forces bases. In those instances they are required to call in outside law enforcement, sometimes in a crisis.

We're dealing with Canadian citizens who have certain rights and freedoms.— Tom Stamatakis, Canadian Police Association

The example was one of 10 startling cases — most of them involving mental health — which have taken place since the beginning of last year within the jurisdiction of 1 Military Police Regiment, the unit responsible for Western Canada.

Names and specific locations were scrubbed out of records released to CBC News, which requested the details after a series of internal federal documents surfaced which demonstrate rising concern about what's being called "a serious limitation" on military police officers (MPs).

Not only does enforcement of certain provincial health statutes fall outside their authority, so do certain mundane traffic safety provisions, such as roadside licence suspensions in drunk driving cases.

Military police are required to call outside law enforcement to enforce certain provincial laws, even on Canadian Forces bases. (Shane MacKichan)

Commanders worried

The jurisdictional issue, which was flagged last year in records obtained by CBC News under Access to Information legislation, made its way up from frontline MPs in Edmonton to both the commander of the Canadian Army and the military's provost marshal.

While the limited authority of military cops is a problem from coast to coast, it is particularly acute in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the territories.

Those provinces and jurisdictions do not recognize a piece of federal legislation known as the Contraventions Act, which allows MPs to deal with certain offenses. 

The limitations are stark and have come to light as the military deals with more mental health cases and suicides.

"My main concern is the inability of MPs to enforce the provincial Mental Health Act, which allows for the arrest of individuals in order to bring them to a medical facility, under reasonable and probable grounds that the person is likely to cause self-harm or harm others," said Brig.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, in a Jan. 29, 2016 memo. He was, at the time, commander of the 3rd Canadian Division in Edmonton, but has since been promoted to be the deputy commander of military personnel in Ottawa.

"While there are other options available in crisis situations, none are as effective as an arrest by the MP under the Mental Health Act. I consider this an area that needs to be addressed without delay."

Depending upon the circumstance and rank, MPs can hold a member of the military under the National Defence Code of Service Discipline, but they need a medical doctor to provide an assessment (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

His plea won the support of Lt.-Gen. Marquis Haines, who was at the time commander of the army.

"The importance of providing Military Police with as much of their enforcement jurisdiction as possible is clear," Haines wrote in an April 13, 2016 memo. "There are practical challenges associated with simply leaving these matters to local police."

Depending upon the circumstance and rank, MPs can hold a member of the military under the National Defence Code of Service Discipline (CSD), but they need a medical doctor to provide an assessment.

It gets more complicated when you factor in civilians, including family members on military bases.  

"MPs cannot arrest civilians not subject to the CSD unless there is a criminal code offence," said a backgrounder attached to Eyer's memo. "Statements indicating self harm are not enough justification for arrest.  Another police agency capable of enforcing the Mental Health Act, such as the RCMP, would be required to arrest and bring the individual to a medical facility."

Brig.-Gen. Rob Delaney says it will be difficult to arrange a legislative fix that would satisfy Ottawa, all provinces and territories. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

Legislative fix?

Brig.-Gen. Rob Delaney, the Canadian Forces' provost marshal, says finding a legislative fix that would satisfy the federal government and all provinces and territories is going to be tough and complex. 

"Those civilian, either civilian employees or members of the public — who are on a defence establishment and if we're dealing with those individuals during time of crisis — we don't have the same authorities as a provincial constable might," he told CBC News.

When they have encountered those situations, Delaney said they have been able to talk their way through, but rank-and-file MPs are particularly concerned about being hamstrung.

"It is frustrating for them to have to rely on other agencies to do something that they see very clearly is within their abilities and their training," he said.

One solution would be to have each province specifically name military police as designated officers under their laws, but Delaney says that has a side effect.

It raises questions about what sort of enforcement powers MPs would have — both on and off base.

And, more importantly, who would conduct oversight reviews in case of misconduct or complaint? Would it be the province or the federal Military Police Complaints Commission?

Sheila Fynes whose son, Cpl. Stuart Langridge committed suicide, says military police may require more authority to deal with mental health cases on bases. (CBC)

Mixed feelings

One former military family that's had extensive dealings with military police said they have mixed feelings about expanded powers.

"I come at it from a very emotional point of view," said Sheila Fynes, whose son Cpl. Stuart Langridge committed suicide. The handling of his case by military police was the subject of a scathing public inquiry report.

"Maybe they do need that authority, but with that comes a clear understanding of when that authority is to be used — or not used. If a soldier is really in dire need of help, I don't care if it's the person next door that gets them to hospital, it just needs to happen."

Fynes and her husband Sean, who have been outspoken critics of the military justice system, say along with expanded authority there should be specific, better training of military police in the provincial laws they would enforce.

They also say there needs to be oversight to prevent potential misconduct from being swept under the rug.

Expectations of citizens

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said "from an efficiency perspective" it makes sense for MPs to deal with cases involving their own people on their own turf, but when it comes to civilians and potential enforcement powers off bases, more discussion is needed.

"There are a lot of issues that would need to be addressed, right from accountability, transparency to interaction with the public," said Stamatakis. "We're dealing with Canadian citizens who have certain rights and freedoms and expectations around enforcement."

A spokesman for Alberta's Attorney General's department said the province is aware of the concerns of military police, but made no promises.

"We are engaged in discussions with the federal government about the Contraventions Act," Jason van Rassel said in an email. "We have been in contact with the federal government regarding the Military Police's authority to enforce provincial statutes in Alberta."


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

With files from David McKie


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