Politics

RCMP should be updating the nation on reform efforts, head of watchdog body says

The head of the RCMP's watchdog body says she wants the national police force to start tabling annual reports explaining how it has succeeded — or failed — in following her reform recommendations.

CRCC says more funding required to spur ‘great change in policing’

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) cadets stand at a graduation ceremony at the RCMP Academy, Depot Division in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, June 5, 2017. (Valerie Zink/Reuters)

The head of the RCMP's watchdog body says she wants the national police force to start tabling annual reports explaining how it has succeeded — or failed — in following her reform recommendations.

The request from the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) comes as the federal government promises to shake up oversight of the RCMP sometime in 2021.

As head of the team of investigators and lawyers that probes public complaints against the RCMP, CRCC chair Michelaine Lahaie issues around 100 to 150 recommendations every year.

But making recommendations can be easier than finding out whether the RCMP actually followed through on them.

"Part of the accountability profile is that they need to indicate when those recommendations have been implemented. And if they haven't, they need to be able to indicate why," Lahaie told CBC News.

"My recommendation is that an annual report on the implementation of our recommendations be produced by the commissioner [of the RCMP]. I'm not tied to who that report needs to go to."

Just a few weeks ago, the CRCC released a report that expressed concerns about the RCMP's use of strip searches — and specifically called out the detachment in Iqaluit, where members have removed bras during body searches.

That followed a 2017 report which found "significant shortcomings" in the RCMP's personal search policies, which cover strip searches.

Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

"We had no way of verifying that those recommendations had actually been implemented. So we undertook a second review and in the process of that review, we found out that some of those recommendations had been implemented, but not all of them," said Lahaie. 

Over the summer, Lahaie told a committee of MPs that the RCMP hasn't been listening to the recommendations her agency has made in recent years regarding Mounties' behaviour on wellness calls — when police officers check up on individuals after someone has expressed a concern about their health or safety.

She also warned the committee that the CRCC lacks the resources to follow up on the RCMP's implementation of its recommendations. That's part of the reason why she sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair this fall calling for more powers and resourcing.

Two bills that would have extended the CRCC's authority to include public complaints against the Canada Border Services Agency died in Parliament due an election and prorogation.

Statutory timelines a top demand 

Lahaie has urged the minister to modify those bills before reintroducing them. For starters, she wants the legislation to include statutory timelines for the RCMP commissioner to respond to the CRCC's reports.

While the RCMP is legally bound to respond to CRCC reports, there are no statutory deadlines. It takes, on average, 17 months for the RCMP to reply to a CRCC report.

As of Dec. 15, there were 158 complaint review files still awaiting an RCMP response. One has been waiting more than four years, while 21 files have been in the queue for three to four years.

The force has insisted repeatedly it tries to respond in as timely a manner as possible while also making sure the recommendations are assessed thoroughly.

The CRCC and the RCMP even drafted a "memorandum of understanding" to set service standards on the release of the commission's reports, but it's not binding.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A number of high-profile CRCC investigation reports — including one on the RCMP's probe of the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan — are still waiting public release because the commissioner's office was slow in providing the required official responses to the watchdog.

"Right now the RCMP's responsiveness to public complaints is not up to the mark that I believe it needs to be," Lahaie said. "Canadians have a right to receive timely responses to their complaints and right now that's not happening.

"A public complaints process is credible when it's responsive to the needs of Canadians. Our findings and recommendations are made at the time that those reports are written and in some cases, because there's such an incredible delay in the responses, those findings and recommendations are no longer relevant. And that is my greatest concern."

More resources needed, says chair

Lahaie's letter to Blair, obtained through an access to information request, also stressed the need for "adequate resourcing in order to ensure the commission continues to meet its core mandate."

The main spending estimates for 2020-21 show the commission, which employs 76 staffers, will see a dip in its budget, from $11.1 million in the previous fiscal year to $10.19 million.

Even as its funding drops, the watchdog is reporting a 22 per cent increase in the number of complaints it received in 2019-2020 compared to the previous year. That rising workload is eating away at the commission's discretionary funding, said Lahaie.

"We're just looking for an increase in our funding that's commensurate with the rise that we've seen in public complaints," she said.

"There is a great desire by the public to see police held accountable. They have extraordinary powers. They need to be held accountable for their actions."

The commission's larger investigations can be resource-intensive. The probe of the RCMP's response to anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick, for example, cost more than $1.7 million, according to the CRCC's letter to Blair.

The commission's pot of discretionary funding is used to fund systemic reviews which cover wider issues of policing. The commission has taken on workplace harassment in the past, and an investigation of the RCMP's use of street checks is slated for the new year.

"I think systemic reviews are a great way of fixing policing before the incidents happen and right now, because of funding constraints, I'm not able to take on as many systemic reviews as I would like," Lahaie told CBC.

"I believe that, really, that's where we can effect great change in policing."

September's speech from the throne promised to move "forward on enhanced civilian oversight of our law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP."

A spokesperson for Blair said a bill concerning the CRCC will be coming in 2021, but it's not clear when.

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