Politics

RCMP's watchdog says force isn't listening to its recommendations on use of force in wellness calls

The head of the RCMP's independent watchdog says the national police force isn't listening to the recommendations her agency has made over the past few years when it comes to Mounties' behaviour on wellness calls.

Watchdog chair spoke to Commons committee studying systemic racism in policing

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is seen during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, April 20, 2020. The head of the RCMP's watchdog says the national police force isn't listening to recommendations about wellness calls. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The head of the RCMP's independent watchdog says the national police force isn't listening to the recommendations her agency has made over the past few years regarding Mounties' behaviour on wellness calls.

Earlier this week, Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC), issued a statement citing a "general pattern of concern" about the RCMP's "unreasonable use of force" during wellness and mental health calls.

"The reason why I chose at the commission to release a public statement is because we were dissatisfied effectively with that, with the fact that recommendations have been made over and over again with respect to wellness checks, and the RCMP does not appear to be listening," Lahaie told a House of Commons committee looking into racism in policing earlier today.

A bill before Parliament proposes widening the mandate of the CRCC to also cover border agents. Lahaie said it also should be tweaked to give her agency stronger teeth.

Lahaie said the RCMP commissioner — and, if Bill C-3 comes into force, the president of the Canada Border Services Agency — should be required to issue annual status updates on their progress in implementing the commission's recommendations. 

"This would increase the transparency of the complaints system and reassure Canadians that the RCMP and the CBSA are held to a high standard of public accountability," she said.

Watchdog calls for binding deadlines

Lahaie also is calling for statutory timelines for the heads of both organizations to respond to the CRCC's findings.

The CRCC has a memorandum of understanding with the RCMP that says the commissioner should respond to its reports within six months, but it's not binding and it isn't being followed.

"At present, the legislation requires the commissioner to respond as soon as feasible. Responses to commission interim reports now take an average of 17 months," Lahaie said.

"One of the commission's reports has been waiting for a response for over three and a half years. This is unacceptable in any system where accountability is critical."

WATCH: RCMP's watchdog 'dissatisfied' with force 

Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, says the force isn't listening to her agency's recommendations.  0:35

In her Tuesday statement, Lahaie said she already has recommended that RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki direct her commanding officers to work with the provinces and territories to develop different health care‑led options.

That report to Lucki also asked her to consider amending RCMP policies to limit police involvement during wellness calls to instances where a police presence is necessary, based on criminality or a risk to public safety, said Lahaie.

A spokesperson for the RCMP said the force won't comment on those recommendations because they still haven't given their response to the CRCC.

"The RCMP considers all public complaints to be important and tries to address them in as timely a manner as possible, while at the same time ensuring they are assessed thoroughly and appropriately," said Catherine Fortin in an email to CBC News.

"We will not comment on our response to the CRCC's 2020 report prior to it being provided to the CRCC."

CRCC has work to do, says head

The CRCC receives between 3,000 and 3,500 complaints from the public every year, ranging from allegations of wrongful arrest and improper use of force to reports of bad driving.

Over the past five years, the agency has received just 76 allegations regarding racism, bias and discrimination. Lahaie said the low number could mean the agency needs to be more approachable.

"It has been reported that there is an over-representation of police use of force incidents involving Indigenous and racialized people. However, many of these use-of-force incidents do not result in a public complaint," she said.

"Why is that the case? We found out that many Indigenous people are either unaware of the public complaint process or do not trust it. The process can be excessively bureaucratic and difficult to navigate."

Union says Mounties under attack

The head of the union representing RCMP officers said the union supports oversight but insisted that Mounties rarely engage in improper uses of force.

"Complaints against members of the RCMP need to be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and resolved in a timely and effective manner," said Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation.

According to the RCMP's figures, officers respond to roughly 2.8 million calls for service each year and, on average, 2,215 of those encounters involve the use of force, or what's known as "police intervention" — less than one per cent of the total.

Police chiefs and academics also weighed in as the MPs on the public safety and national security committee consider recommendations for the federal government.

The RCMP and other police forces across Canada are under pressure to explain their conduct in a number of high-profile incidents involving people with mental health problems and the policing of diverse communities.

MPs on the public safety and national security committee are studying systemic racism in policing. (CBC)

The death of Rodney Levi — a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick shot and killed by a Mountie last month — is under investigation. His family said he suffered from mental health problems.

And questions still linger after video surfaced of an RCMP officer tackling Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam outside of a casino after he was stopped for driving with expired licence plates. The officer said the chief was resisting arrest.

Earlier this summer, Commissioner Lucki faced a backlash for saying in several media interviews that she was struggling to define the term "systemic racism." She later reversed herself, issuing a statement saying she believes systemic racism exists in the RCMP.

Sauvé said his members have reported being yelled at, spat upon and assaulted while on duty.

"This is unacceptable," he said. "We support and protect every Canadians' right to be treated fairly and equally. In return, we ask for respect and fairness for our members who put their lives on the line.

"I feel policing is being unfairly spotlighted in an important greater conversation, as police routinely address the issues experienced by our most vulnerable citizens, when all other systems have failed."

Indigenous leaders call for change 

Yesterday, the committee heard from a handful of Indigenous leaders who called for a sweeping national review of the the RCMP's policing policies.

"We definitely need a change in policing in this country that we call Canada," said Terry Teegee, a regional chief with the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed stressed that any review should involve the Inuit communities he represents. 

"We as Inuit disproportionately experience police violence compared to most other Canadians, as well as a host of challenges in accessing justice," he said.

"We are tired of being left on the sidelines when there are reviews because, in the end, our views and our perspectives are always at risk of being drowned out by other considerations."

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