As calls to 'defund' police grow, some say it's time for the RCMP to do less

The federal government is taking a closer look at the RCMP's contract policing obligations — a review that's taking on new relevance as calls mount to reallocate police budgets across North America.

Public Safety is reviewing the RCMP's role in regional and municipal policing

Anti-racism protestors block Cordova Street in Vancouver on June 15, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The federal government is taking a closer look at the RCMP's contract policing obligations — a review taking on new relevance as calls mount to reallocate police budgets across North America.

During testimony in front of a House of Commons meeting earlier this week — and against a backdrop of recent allegations of racism and excessive force levelled against RCMP officers — Commissioner Brenda Lucki was questioned about calls to rid the force of its contract policing duties.

"I think under our modernization efforts, like I said, no stone will be left unturned and one of them is a review of contract policing," said the head Mountie, referring to a review being undertaken by the Department of Public Safety.

A spokesperson for Public Safety said that while provinces set their own policing priorities, the review is looking at a number of areas of "mutual interest" with the federal government, including accountability and transparency, systemic racism, modernization, frontline policing priorities (including body cameras), the new RCMP union, cost-containment, recruitment and the transition in Surrey B.C. from the RCMP to a municipal police department.

The CBC's questions about when the review will be finished, and whether it will be made public, went unanswered.

Mounties are assigned to contract policing in roughly 150 municipalities, all three territories and in every province except Ontario and Quebec. The force also has federal policing obligations ranging from protecting the prime minister to thwarting terrorist attacks and investigating organized crime.

Provinces and territories pay 70 per cent of the cost of the RCMP's operations in their jurisdictions, with the federal government contributing the remaining 30 per cent.

Funding the RCMP's presence in municipalities is more complicated: those cost-sharing formulas depend in part on population size and when a municipality first signed its policing agreement with the RCMP.

The RCMP's current policing agreements — municipal, provincial and territorial — expire in 2032.

While most provinces do use the RCMP as provincial police, larger municipalities have their own police forces.

Funding is 'chaotic:' professor

Robert Gordon, a former police officer now a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, described Canada's policing setup as "chaotic and ... ineffective."

"But it has the weight of tradition behind it, a reluctance on the part of politicians in particular, but also policy makers in Ottawa, to ease this situation, to take a good, hard look at it and realize that it's not good policing," he said.

Mounties are assigned to contract policing in 153 municipalities, the three territories and all provinces but Ontario and Quebec. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"It's a balkanized system and it makes for inefficient and I think costly policing."

An internal government memo obtained by the Canadian Press shows those costly contract policing obligations are draining resources from the force's federal duties, including investigations of organized crime and national security operations.

"Public Safety Canada and the RCMP have confirmed there are systemic sustainability challenges impacting the whole of the RCMP," says the Public Safety department memo.

"Federal policing responsibilities have been and are being eroded to meet contract demands."

Out of the RCMP's roughly $3.5 billion budget, $1.5 billion goes to contract and Indigenous policing and more than 70 per cent of the force's officers are tasked to contract policing.

Any kind of policing reform is like bending granite.- Robert Gordon, SFU professor

The force's funding problems could swell if the Mounties' nascent union, the National Police Federation, succeeds with its demand for a salary increase.

Gordon said he'd like to see the provinces take on funding their own police forces, perhaps with the help of startup money from the federal government to ease the transition.

"There should be one police service for the whole of the province of Ontario, or the whole of the province of Alberta, or the whole of the province of British Columbia. It's been a free ride for too long on the backs of the federal taxpayer," Gordon said, adding he's not optimistic change is coming anytime soon.

"Shaking organizations ... when they don't want to be shaken is a very difficult task. Any kind of policing reform is like bending granite."

Time for a change?

Lucki defended the RCMP's budget at committee Tuesday and pushed for more.

"Our model, as much as sometimes it's criticized, is the envy of most police agencies because of its flexibility and nimbleness in times of crisis," she said, citing the hunt for two homicide suspects in Manitoba last year and the investigation of an alleged terrorist plot in Kingston, Ont., as examples.

"It takes a lot of specialized resources which you can't afford to have in each area ... so it is a great model, but it needs to be resourced accordingly and we have to make sure that it's in the proper footprint with the proper resources."

While the nation takes stock of police budgets, Kanika Samuels-Wortley, an assistant professor at Carleton University at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said it's time to rethink the RCMP's role as first responders.

"I think this is an opportunity for there to be a more concerted effort to try to minimize the scope that the RCMP has," she said.

"There has been a demonstration that there are issues with policing and particularly within racialized Indigenous and Black communities, and this is an opportunity really for the RCMP not to be involved in these communities where there tends to be a great tension."

Instead, said Samuels-Wortley, the RCMP should focus on its federal policing priorities, freeing up government funding for social services.

"I would say that this is an opportunity, yes, for the police to just deal federally because I understand that they do contribute to national security," she said.

"This is a positive way to change who they are and what they represent. But I don't think being within smaller communities provincially, or within municipalities, is the way to go."

The idea of moving the RCMP away from contract policing seems to have momentum now. Surrey, B.C. — the largest RCMP contract municipality – is looking at creating its own police force. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has talked about establishing a provincial police force.

Watch:  RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki under pressure from MPs on systemic racism

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki under pressure from MPs on systemic racism

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RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is facing new questions from MPs as the public safety committee reviews systemic racism within the RCMP. The force has been under pressure recently to explain why an officer shot and killed Rodney Levi in New Brunswick. 

Samuels-Wortley said individual communities should rethink the mix of services they fund and strike their own balance between policing, education, mental health services, affordable housing, living wage initiatives and other measures that can affect public safety.

"Every community is not the same," she said.

"I think this is an opportunity for us to look at other ways as opposed to policing and control. Instead of being reactive, be more proactive about what it is that we can do to build a healthier community."

Public Safety supports 'culturally-competent policing'

That conversation is going to play out differently in Indigenous communities, said Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director for Aboriginal Legal Services. She argues that distrust of the RCMP runs deep in those communities, reflecting the police service's history of pushing Indigenous people off the land and onto reserves and sending Indigenous children to residential schools.

She said she's not certain reform of the RCMP's funding model could mend that relationship.

"They've been used as the government's tool of oppression," she told CBC Radio's The House. "There needs to be a lot done to actually see the reform and build trust with the Indigenous community."

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minster Bill Blair said Canadians "deserve investments in essential services, such as mental health programming, alongside culturally-competent policing."

"We know that Canadians want to see action," said Mary-Liz Power in an email. "We are focused on ensuring that Canadians have access to the critical mental health care they need, and are also funding community-based projects to develop culturally focused programming, capacity and knowledge to improve mental health supports for Black Canadians."

Liberal MP Pam Damoff,  parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indigenous Services and a member of the parliamentary committee studying systemic racism in policing, suggested involving Indigenous leaders in the contract policing review.

"To defund completely without looking at how we're going to deliver services, I don't think is the right approach. I think we need to work with Indigenous people to see how we do this best," she said.

Big Canoe said there's a lot of work to do yet — but a lot of that work has been done already, through various reports and inquiries.

"As it relates specifically to Indigenous People, there's more than enough evidence to start having a serious conversation about defunding," she said.

With files from Chris Hall and the Canadian Press