Politics

RCMP watchdog's misconduct reports caught in limbo, stalling their release

The RCMP continues to mull over a number of high-profile investigations into Mounties behaviour completed by its watchdog body, ultimately stalling their release and raising questions about how effective police oversight of the national police force is.

CRCC has been waiting for months — in some cases for more than year — for responses

A bottleneck at the RCMP is delaying the release of civilian oversight investigations of complaints about Mountie behaviour. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The RCMP continues to mull over a number of high-profile investigations completed by its watchdog body involving allegations of Mountie misbehaviour — ultimately stalling their release and raising questions about the effectiveness of public oversight.

"Ultimately, it undermines the legitimacy of the force when individuals don't get answers to the complaints that they have," said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College who has written extensively on RCMP oversight.

"And all they get is their monthly update letter that your complaint is still with the commissioner."

Calls for changes to the RCMP ramped up this week after an officer in Nunavut was caught on camera using his truck's door to knock a man over before arresting him. Those calls are part of a broader debate in this country about police use of force — inspired both by incidents in Canada and by the continent-wide wave of protests triggered by George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (the CRCC) is the independent body tasked with reviewing Mounties' behaviour. It receives, on average, more than 2,000 complaints from the public every year, ranging from allegations of wrongful arrest and improper use of force to reports of bad driving.

While it doesn't publicize the results of every review — citing the need to protect complainants' privacy — it does go public with chairperson-initiated complaints and public interest investigations which involve incidents that are already in the public domain.

A number of CRCC's high-profile investigations have been stalled for months — in some cases for more than a year

Whenever the CRCC isn't satisfied with the RCMP's handling of a complaint, its report on the complaint lands on the RCMP commissioner's desk for review. Commissioner Brenda Lucki and her team then identify which of the CRCC's recommendations the RCMP intends to pursue.

If the commissioner disagrees with any of the recommendations, she must provide the CRCC with reasons. Only then can the CRCC's final report be compiled and released.

One incomplete review was started in 2013

The complaint commission is still waiting for the RCMP to weigh in on its investigation into how the RCMP handled Indigenous-led anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick back in 2013.

The CRCC said it sent the RCMP its report in March 2019 and is waiting to hear which, if any, of its recommendations will be accepted.

In an unusual move, CRCC chair Michelaine Lahaie did release a portion of her commission's findings earlier this year when she announced the commission wouldn't investigate claims that the RCMP acted unlawfully during recent protests in Wet'suwet'en territory in B.C., because recommendations addressing identical issues were sent to the force almost a year ago.

In 2016 the CRCC started to review a controversial arrest made by Coquitlam Mounties during an annual condo board meeting in the B.C. city.

A shocking video of the incident showed an officer dragging an elderly man down a flight of stairs. In the immediate aftermath, critics questioned the Mounties' use of force and whether language barriers were at play.

A Coquitlam RCMP officer drags an individual down a flight of stairs at a Best Western on Oct. 27, 2016. (Victor Kim/YouTube)

The CRCC said it finished its report in February 2019 and is still awaiting Commissioner Lucki's response.

In early 2018 the watchdog launched two investigations into the RCMP's handling of the shooting death of Colten Boushie, the 22-year-old from Red Pheasant Cree Nation who was shot and killed during an altercation with Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley in August 2016. A jury at Stanley's trial acquitted him of second-degree murder in February 2018.

The CRCC confirmed it finished its investigation and gave the RCMP its findings, along with some recommendations, in January of this year.

The RCMP has not yet responded to CBC News' repeated requests for information about the delays.

The last public final reports published by the CRCC came out in 2017, when Bob Paulson was RCMP commissioner.

"There's definitely a resource challenge, there's probably also an institutional challenge," said Leuprecht.

"I get the sense that the RCMP has never felt that either transparency or oversight is an asset in terms of the way they do business, and that they sort of feel they have it figured out. So that's never been a very happy relationship."

"They're not agile enough, I think, to deal with multiple challenges, multiples of these reports at the same time. But that shouldn't mean that reports have to wait as long as they do."

CRCC spokesperson Kate McDerby said there is no limit in the RCMP Act on the amount of time the commissioner has to respond to a CRCC interim report. 

The head of the RCMP also doesn't have to accept the recommendations.

"If they don't accept the recommendation, it kind of ends there," said Ian Scott, who led the Ontario Special Investigations Unit from 2008 to 2013.

"It can go to the desk of the minister but that's it. There's no system in the federal system for independent adjudication of a ... complaint or incident by the RCMP.

"We do want analysis of complaints in order to improve policy and performance. But that's that's merely the policy performance aspect to the piece. What about conduct-related complaints where there is misconduct on behalf of the officers that they ought to be disciplined [for]?

"That's just not part of the process. So that is, in my view, problematic for a civilian oversight agency."

The CRCC is described as "distinct and independent from the RCMP," but police accountability advocates say they worry about how much the watchdog agency has to rely on detachments to conduct their reviews.

"But really, to be brutally honest, the investigative process is simply not in the hands of the RCMP complaints commission. It's in the hands of the affected division of the RCMP, which makes the complaints commission subject to criticism," said Scott.

"So when you look at some of the typical hallmarks of independence and public confidence, they're missing a couple of links in the process."

CRCC doesn't collect race-based data

Since most complaints to the CRCC are private, it's not clear if the commission is also experiencing a lag in response times. The CRCC did cite improving its response times on complaints as a goal in its plan for 2020-2021, suggesting it knows some improvement is needed.

The agency said it doesn't collect race-based data, so it's not clear how many of those complaints involve Mounties' interactions with minority communities. All three outstanding public domain investigations involve visible minorities.

A 2015 Statistics Canada report — the most current survey of its kind — showed that Canadians who reported having contact with police in the 12 months prior, for any reason, rated police performance lower than did those who had no contact with police. According to that report, visible minorities also tended to rate police performance lower than did non-visible minorities.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki appears at a meeting of the House of Commons standing committee on public safety and national security in Ottawa on Monday, May 7, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The CRCC is in the midst of a number of broader service reviews of the RCMP's culture that go beyond individual incidents; they're expected to be released later this year.

CRCC spokesperson Kate McDerby said the commission hopes to send its review of strip searches to RCMP headquarters next month, and another on street checks this fall.

The RCMP has to follow an agreed-upon timetable for responding to those broader reviews. The commissioner has 60 days to respond to them; after that, the CRCC can make its findings public.

The commission is also reviewing the adequacy of RCMP's "bias-free policing model." That review is set for release in 2021.

Bill C-3 would expand watchdog's mandate

Calls for more police accountability have been increasing for years — particularly in relation to the RCMP, both because of its interactions with the public and because of its internal problems with harassment and bullying.

Following multiple reports calling for more civilian oversight of the RCMP, the federal government announced a new management advisory board last year to offer administration and management advice to the RCMP.

The public knows very little about that board's work so far. CBC News asked the federal Public Safety department for an update on its work since its appointment in June 2019.

The RCMP wrote back that the board has provided advice to the commissioner on workplace harassment, recruitment, strategic direction, finances and governance, but it has not launched any specific reports to date.

"This advice has been captured in the summaries that have been prepared for each meeting," said RCMP spokesperson Catherine Fortin.

"These summaries are currently available by submitting an Access to Information request."

The CRCC's planned budget for 2020-2021 amounts to more than $10 million and the agency has a full-time staff of just over 50 people.

That could change if Bill C-3 — which would expand the CRCC's mandate to include the Canada Border Services Agency — passes through Parliament. That bill, like other non-COVID-19-related legislation, has been stuck at second reading for months now.

"The reason we have these oversight agencies is precisely so that we have accountability that is civilian and independent," said Leuprecht. "And it seems that federal agencies, interestingly, whether it's the RCMP or CBSA, don't seem to be particularly keen on those.

"Government can put in place these two entities but ultimately it'll also be up to government and the minister to make them work and to force the hands of organizations such as the RCMP and CBSA."

The CRCC's mandate covers complaints from the public about the conduct of RCMP members, but doesn't include criminal investigations. Most provinces have separate bodies to review incidents of death or serious harm. 

With files from the CBC's Emma Godmere

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