Why are the RCMP less well-armed than a municipal police force?

The Moncton deaths have set off a firestorm inside the RCMP

The funeral procession for the three RCMP officers who were killed in the line of duty in Moncton, N.B. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

The funeral procession for the three RCMP officers who were killed in the line of duty in Moncton, N.B. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Update, Jan. 16, 2015: An internal RCMP report on the Moncton shooting released today includes 64 recommendations on firepower, communication and supervision. In this piece from July 2014, Charlie Gillis examined the resources of the police force.

Few things stir anger among Mounties these days like the mere mention of the Colt C8 carbine, a semi-automatic assault rifle that has become industry standard in Canadian policing—but has been painfully slow coming to the RCMP. In the wake of the shooting of five officers in Moncton, N.B., members of the force have wondered: Could access to the guns have tipped the balance in favour of the officers who took bullets from a heavily armed shooter? Could the lives of the three officers killed that day have been spared? Could one of them?

In most institutions, this would be considered healthy critical thinking. But in the world’s most iconic police force, criticism has never been terribly welcome. Three weeks after the June 4 rampage, Commissioner Bob Paulson fired off an email to all 22,000 RCMP members warning his troops against “superficial, easy and incomplete” analyses suggesting the fallen officers were under-armed, while assuring members that an internal review led by Phonse MacNeil, a retired senior Mountie, will examine all aspects of the tragedy, from tactics to equipment. “We need to source and confirm this information before making any judgments,” the commissioner went on, adding: “Let’s be clear, there is one person responsible for the murder and attempted murder of our colleagues.”

Paulson did make one disclosure about patrol carbines—that none of the Codiac detachment’s six C8s was available to the Mounties who responded to the Moncton shooting. That served to fuel the growing sense of dismay among officers. The carbine, they argue, has proven its value to modern policing because this lightweight, short-barrelled rifle can fire many bullets, quickly and accurately, from a greater distance than pistols or shotguns. In an age when more and more bad guys are equipped with assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols, they give the good guys a fighting chance. “This is essential safety equipment that they simply weren’t willing to give us,” one constable from Western Canada told Maclean’s last week, speaking on condition of anonymity, because under RCMP regulations he could be punished for criticizing his superiors. “It’s hard enough staying a step ahead of your adversary. But this is a case where the RCMP has knowingly remained several steps behind.”

That perception has intensified as Paulson’s personal role in the interminably slow carbine program has begun to emerge. Back in 2010, when he was in charge of the national use-of-force program, including weapons, he rejected an RCMP-commissioned report that called on the force to equip all general duty officers with patrol carbines, disparaging the document as substandard and a waste of taxpayer dollars. That was 18 months before Paulson took the helm of the service; by then, fully 53 police forces across Canada had equipped at least some of their patrol officers with carbines. The Mounties had fallen behind their municipal colleagues in places like Delta, B.C., and Windsor, Ont.

Only after a provincial fatality inquiry into the 2005 murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., reached a similar finding in early 2011 did the report come back to light—it was resurrected by a deputy commissioner, Rod Knecht, who found it relevant to the C8 acquisition program the force launched soon after. Today, Knecht is chief of the Edmonton city police.


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It’s the sort of absurdity endemic to large institutions (in an interview earlier this week, the RCMP defended Paulson’s initial criticism of the report). But it has fed the belief among some patrol officers that their leaders in Ottawa either don’t understand, or refuse to face, how well-armed their quarry have become. They point to other officer safety issues, like the scarcity of body armour so acute that some officers pay out of pocket for their own. One Mountie interviewed by Maclean’s ticked off the incidents he says should long ago have demonstrated the dangers: the 1989 Montreal massacre; the 2001 murder of Const. Dennis Strongquill in Manitoba; the 2006 shooting of two Mounties near Spiritwood, Sask. “We’re a decade after Mayerthorpe,” he says, his voice rising with frustration, “and it’s, you know—here we go again. How does this happen?” Says another, based in B.C.: “I love the RCMP. I’ve served in all sorts of capacities for this force and I don’t like seeing it being publicly trashed. But I have no faith in the idea of our leaders protecting my health and well-being.”

To be sure, the RCMP has never been a gun-oriented police force. The patrol shotguns that officers carry in their cars were added almost as an afterthought in the 1950s, when it became clear that their service revolvers weren’t enough for officers confronted with armed adversaries (at close range, it’s a lot easier to hit a bad guy with a shotgun than with a pistol). Even now, there is little pressure among general duty officers to have the extra firepower within reach. “If you get out of your car without your hat on, you can expect to hear about it from an NCO,” one Mountie told Maclean’s. “If you leave the office without your shotgun in your car, no one’s going to say a word to you.”

That sounds fitting for a force whose officers are renowned for composure and diplomacy. But as assault-style weapons both legal and illicit have proliferated, the RCMP have been under pressure to keep up, like every other police department. Even before Mayerthorpe, where shooter James Roszko had amassed an arsenal of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, forces in the U.S. and Canada were embracing the advent of patrol carbines. Once the preserve of tactical units, the menacing weapons were adapted for officers on general patrol, in most cases mounted in holders in the cabs of their cruisers.

The Mounties arguably needed them more than urban departments who got them first. Rifle and shotgun ownership is commonplace in the rural communities Mounties patrol, and it can take hours for emergency response teams—the RCMP’s term for SWAT units—to reach distant locales. To complicate matters, producers of illegal drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine have in recent decades migrated to the countryside, where they were less likely to attract attention from authorities. “When we do search warrants, we are constantly finding people who have handguns and semi-automatic rifles,” one B.C.-based officer said. “These are relatively low-level drug dealers. It’s scary.”

Yet of all forces in the country, the RCMP has been among the slowest to get its carbine program up and running. It began looking into the idea as early as 2006, with the Mayerthorpe tragedy still raw in its memory. But it wasn’t until early 2010 that the force commissioned Darryl Davies, a lecturer at Carleton University’s criminology department, to conduct a needs assessment on adopting the carbine. The price of his input was steep—$92,000, for a study that reviewed existing literature on patrol carbines, and surveyed firearms specialists inside and outside the RCMP.

Davies’s findings reflect the consensus that has since formed around the weapons: 77.6 per cent of RCMP respondents he polled believed patrol carbines should be issued to all uniformed officers; 91 per cent said it should take the place of the shotgun in police cars. The report recommended an across-the-board rollout of the guns, along with a comprehensive training program. Yet Paulson was unimpressed: “The report does not contain the appropriate consultation and detailed information required to assist us with making an informed decision regarding the advancement of the patrol carbine project,” he wrote to Davies on June 21, 2010, adding: “It did not lead me to conclude that we had received value for our money.”

Thus began a nasty to-and-fro that has gained new life in the wake of the Moncton tragedy. “Ultimately, this commissioner is responsible for not equipping his officers with a patrol carbine years ago,” said Davies this week, insisting there was nothing wrong with his work. Byron Boucher, an assistant commissioner at RCMP headquarters, pointed a finger back at Davies. “He did not meet the standards set out in the statement of work,” Boucher said Tuesday. “Because of that, it put us behind by the amount of time he had taken to process it.”

Indeed, delay is about the only undisputed fact. In early 2011, more than a year after Davies submitted the draft version of his report, the provincial fatality inquiry into Mayerthorpe issued its findings, urging the Mounties to give its proposed carbine program “high priority.” At that point, the RCMP turned to Defence Research and Development Canada, the research arm of the Department of National Defence, to do the sort of needs assessment they’d ordered from Davies. Finally, in late 2011, it settled on the Colt C8, a Canadian-made gun already in use by police forces across the country, including the Calgary police and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

Even then the delays continued—many of them related to cost. Laden with enhanced grips, a U.S.-made after-market trigger and so-called “red-dot” sights showing the operator where on the target a bullet will land, the RCMP’s version of the carbines came in at a whopping $4,950 per gun, and that was just the beginning. To use the gun, officers needed to complete a five-day course similar to that used by special forces soldiers in the Canadian military, at a cost of $5,000 for groups of up to five members (other police services, including the OPP, have opted for a stripped-down version of the C8 worth $2,800, and a two-day training course).

Moreover, rather than following Davies’s suggestion of an immediate, centrally run rollout, headquarters left the key decision-making in the hands of regional divisions and local detachments. Each was allowed to request a number of C8s based on the risk in their area, but local commanders would have to find money for the carbines in their budgets. Those feeling a financial pinch could forgo the weapons, a policy that critics have sharply questioned in the wake of the Moncton shooting. As of this week, 1,333 of the guns had been sent out to detachments—about one for every 13 of the force’s regular members.

It’s a syndrome with which veteran Mounties say they’re well familiar. While the force has mandated that every patrol car be stocked with hard-plate body armour, they note, patrol constables in B.C. have been turning up at stores like DS Tactical in New Westminster, B.C., to buy their own, out of pocket. A single plate capable of stopping a rifle bullet can cost up to $500 per plate; so-called “soft” armour, which can stop pistol shots, costs about as much. “By the time they get here, they’ve already voiced their frustration with those above them,” says Martin Kerr, the store’s manager, who notes that many Mounties buy higher quality gear than that issued by the RCMP. “If you’re in that field, it’s your own rear on the line.”

Other officers have taken C8 training courses on their own time, preparing for the day when they might have access to the rifles. While the commissioner has urged them not to leap to conclusions about what transpired in Moncton, several interviewed by Maclean’s in the past week see the slow pace of the carbine rollout as the single most important operational question arising from the tragedy. At bottom, they say, the carbine program is about allowing officers to engage an armed person from a safer distance, rather than rushing into danger in hope of getting within pistol or shotgun range. “You can stop from 100, 150 m away, and yell at him to drop the gun,” explained one officer who is trained on C8s. “You can shoot back from that far and know you’ll hit him. Basically, the carbine gives you options.”

The same officer stresses that he is not questioning the decision-making of the members who got shot: “It could be that they had no other option but to get that close.” Rather, he’s critical of what he sees as the needless delay of the C8 rollout. Davies echoed the sentiment. About eight months after he received Paulson’s scathing letter, he said, he got a call from the office of Rod Knecht, then a senior deputy commissioner posted to Ottawa. Knecht found nothing wrong with the report and, according to Davies, seemed taken aback by Paulson’s criticisms (Knecht was on holiday from his job as chief of the Edmonton police and unavailable for comment).

A few days later, he and his executive assistant took Davies for lunch at Colonnade Pizza in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, where Knecht handed him a limited-edition medallion embossed with the deputy commissioner’s coat of arms. Whether it was a token of apology, or merely a goodwill gesture, is unclear. But within a month of their meeting, the force had announced its decision to replace most of its shotguns with carbines.

Still, Davies is unlikely to hear any regrets from RCMP headquarters. Boucher says the force has done everything in its power to speed the launch of the C8, but had reasons for taking as much time as it has. “We are subject to so many inquiries and judicial reviews that any decision we make has to be informed,” he says, adding: “There’s a clear understanding within the organization that budget realities will not affect officer safety.” It’s a contentious assertion, given how many other forces had decided the carbine was key to officer safety—many as long as a decade ago. With retired and active RCMP officers now calling for an independent inquiry into the deaths in Moncton, it’s one that may soon face its own test in the cold light of a public forum.

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