Saturday, December 26, 2009



2010 looms as critical for Canada's iconic police force already battered by scandal and controversy

VANCOUVER–An RCMP cadet wearing a blue T-shirt and her hair tied back in a bun stands remarkably still against a chain-link fence as a steady stream of pepper spray is blasted at her face.

She opens her eyes and starts whimpering from the pain, scrambling to complete a set of tasks that include repeatedly kneeing a fake suspect and finding a radio lying on the ground to call for help

"I can't breathe," she says through tears once the exercise is over, exhausted and hunched over one of her instructors at the RCMP's training centre in Regina.

It's a scene from Courage In Red, a television series that broadcast for the past two months documenting the daily lives of RCMP members, from the grind of basic training to isolated policing in the far North.

The show, which looks like a recruiting video, is an attempt to boost the Mounties' profile at a time when Canadians are increasingly skeptical of their national police force, with recent scandals and controversies continuing to tarnish their iconic image.

It might take more than a feel-good television series to repair the force's battered image ahead of a year that could prove pivotal for the RCMP's future in this country.

Reports from the public inquiries into Robert Dziekanski's death and the 1985 Air India bombing are almost complete, major policing operations such as the Vancouver Olympics and the G20 will be under heavy public scrutiny, and all of that will come before 2012 contract negotiations with provincial and territorial governments, at least one of which has mused about dropping the RCMP altogether.

Observers say the RCMP can survive its current malaise, but only if it successfully addresses very real concerns that it isn't accountable and has no appetite for change.

The Mounties tend to handle most criminal investigations involving their own members, and provincial oversight bodies typically have no jurisdiction over the national force. The RCMP's own watchdog can only make non-binding recommendations, and some critics say those recommendations are too often ignored.

Simon Fraser University criminologist David MacAlister argues there simply isn't enough oversight of the RCMP. Until that changes, he says, the force's image problems will only get worse.

"People are probably starting to wonder, why do we have the RCMP? They're not accountable locally, so why would we bother keeping them?"

Paul Kennedy, the outgoing chair of the force's complaints commission, released a report this year that called on the RCMP to stop investigating itself in serious cases to avoid conflict of interest. He repeated that recommendation in a report this month that scolded the officers involved in Dziekanski's death and criticized the subsequent homicide investigation.

The RCMP, however, has appeared hesitant to accept Kennedy's recommendations, saying changes are in the works but suggesting a blanket policy forbidding the force from investigating its own officers would be impractical.

The force and the federal government also say they're waiting for the Dziekanski and Air India reports before deciding just what changes to make.

Kennedy says the RCMP knows what's wrong and how to fix it, and should have acted by now.

RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields, who served as the force's media relations officer in B.C. during the high-profile public inquiry into Dziekanski's death, readily acknowledges the Mounties have work to do, and he insists change is imminent.

"It's without question the RCMP's image has taken a hit, and we are going to work as hard as we can to try and rebuild that trust with the public," says Shields.

"What is important is that the public sees that there is an effective system in dealing with those mistakes and that changes are made as a result of that system."

Shields acknowledges 2010 could be a make-or-break year for the force, especially with the massive RCMP-led security operation at Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"I think it's fair to say that this is a very critical time for the RCMP," he says. "I doubt that the organization has been the focus of as much media attention as we received over the past couple of years, and our response to some of these major incidents is going to determine the outcome of public opinion and possibly the future of the force."

*** It's always about image for some reason, no real appetite for meaningful change. If there was ever a reason to subject the RCMP to civilian oversight, image would be one of them. MS ***