The Mounties give up

The RCMP is walking away from serious investigations, and failing to snag fraudsters, drug traffickers and white collar criminals

Content image

Photograph by Rita Leistner

Photograph by Rita Leistner

This story was originally published in the January 24, 2006, issue of Maclean’s. Read every Maclean’s story—stretching back more than a century—in our archives, here.

On the day of his graduation from the RCMP, red twill blazing and “high-browns” burnished to a lustre, Const. Keith Johnston, 27, is charting a dream career in law enforcement. From here at the Mounties’ training academy in Regina, he’s off to Didsbury, Alta., a quiet prairie town where he can learn the ropes of day-to-day policing. Then, with a few years under his belt, the native of Campbellford, Ont., plans to return to his home province, where elite RCMP units run many of their operations against the country’s most elusive villains: terrorists, international mobsters, white collar criminals. To Johnston, these complex, high-stakes investigations are the stuff that sets the RCMP apart from other police services—“that something,” as he puts it, “that drew me to the Mounties.”

Swearing-in day at Depot, as the training facility here is known, is a time for such blue-sky optimism—a moment for grads to reflect with pride on joining the world’s most iconic police force. But reality quickly intrudes. No sooner have Johnston and 27 fellow graduates scattered to postings across the country than the federal auditor general releases a report revealing that many of those positions he covets aren’t actually getting filled. Newly released numbers show the Mounties have fallen some 600 officers, or 25 per cent, below normal strength in federal enforcement areas like drug interdiction and organized crime.

Their performance shows it. On drug offences, for example, clearance rates have fallen from nearly 80 per cent in 1995 to 61 per cent in 2004, according to numbers obtained from Statistics Canada (clearance rates are the proportion of incidents effectively solved through charges or other forms of resolution; they are a key measure of a police force’s success). The Mounties’ rate for other federal investigations—from immigration fraud to stock market scams to smuggling schemes—has been even worse, tumbling from highs near 80 per cent in the mid-1990s to 49 per cent in 2004.

And when Johnston speaks to some of his senior colleagues, the picture may seem even bleaker. In interviews with Maclean’s over the past few weeks, officers from across the country have depicted a force losing effectiveness even as it receives more money and legal powers from the federal government. Detectives in federal units say they’re being forced to ignore intelligence of criminal wrongdoing because they simply can’t muster the manpower to investigate. The problem, they say, is that the force is preoccupied with fulfilling its contracts to communities where it supplies street-level policing. Yet patrol constables say they’re overburdened, too. In increasingly serious cases, they say, officers routinely try to persuade crime victims not to press charges so they can close files more quickly. “If the public knew,” says one officer based in British Columbia, “I think there would be a scandal.”

Here lies the dilemma at the heart of the RCMP’s ever-expanding mission. Can it answer the need for a nimble, well-staffed federal police agency while simultaneously patrolling the streets ofThe Pas, Man., or Burnaby, B.C.? Or by trying to do two things at once, are they doing neither well?

The issue seems all the more timely as high-stakes crime reclaims its place at the centre of the national conversation. Finance ministers in both Ottawa and Queen’s Park have been drawn into market enforcement investigations over the past year, while the Gomery inquiry exhumed a network of political operatives defrauding the public with apparent impunity. Last fall, Bank of Canada governor David Dodge warned in a speech to RCMP brass that Canada risks becoming “a safe haven for opportunistic criminals who deal in white collar crime.” These are matters the Mounties are specifically mandated to handle. Dodge for one is urging them to get busy.

Paul Palango, who has written two influential books on the RCMP, takes the argument one step further. The Mounties, he says, have been falling behind transnational and white collar criminals since the mid-1990s, and the single, galvanizing event since then—the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—have failed to prompt any wholesale reassessment, he says. “Nothing has changed. The RCMP’s whole point has been to maintain the status quo.” In the meantime, he notes, the Mounties have been defined by a well-publicized series of mishaps and investigative failures— incidents reinforcing perceptions of disarray. The acquittal of suspects in the Air India bombing; the damaging allegations surrounding Maher Arar’s deportation to Syria; the fruitless investigation of Brian Mulroney and the Airbus contracts—all have called into question the Mounties’ ability to handle big-time international cases.

On the patrol side, the fatal shooting in November of a teenager in Houston, B.C., and the drowning last summer of an officer wearing his body armour in Lake Okanagan gave rise to accusations of poor judgment or ill-preparedness. So too did the deaths of four officers near Mayerthorpe, Alta., at the hands of a well-known troublemaker. So even as all the major political parties line up to promise money and officers on the 17,000member force, the troubling question lingers: are the Mounties up to the job?

The RCMP takes these perceptions seriously enough to fly a senior officer from Ottawa to Regina to show a reporter what it’s doing to replenish its ranks and meet the myriad demand for its services. Courtly and soft-spoken, Insp. Glen Siegersma is the kind of Sam Steele figure the RCMP has purveyed publicly since its inception 132 years ago, and that polls suggest many Canadians still revere. At Depot’s monument to fallen officers, Siegersma unfailingly pauses to salute. When cadets snap to attention upon seeing his officers’ insignia, he thanks them for their fealty.

These qualities, along with his basic candour, make Siegersma the perfect officer to head the RCMP’s recruiting “renewal initiative,” the closest the force has ever come to a nationally coordinated recruiting campaign. In each of the next two years, the organization hopes to turn out some 1,600-plus new officers, fully 60 per cent more than the 2005 output. On one level, this response reflects the crisis every government agency faces due to retiring baby boomers. According to the auditor general, vacancies across the RCMP could reach 3,500 by 2010. “I think we’d be foolish not to look into the future, at the demographic trends, and not prepare ourselves,” says Siegersma. It’s also a way to show they’re addressing policing problems slowly coming to public attention. Whatever role the RCMP fills in the future, the need for experienced officers will be a constant.

It won’t be easy. Last summer, reports surfaced indicating the RCMP had received 28 per cent fewer applications from Ontario and Quebec than the previous year (Siegersma says that number has rebounded), and the long-term trends are worrying. Whereas 10,000 people typically wrote the RCMP entry exam each year in the mid-’90s, that number has fallen to about 8,000 recently, for about 1,000 positions. That’s still plenty to choose from, but viewed as a poll, it’s hardly a vote of confidence. Then there’s the problem of keeping the good ones. “For many of those who joined in the

past, it was the only choice they had, and they tended to stay,” said RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli in an interview. “In today’s society, young men and women have different options, different alternatives. So if we don’t make this profession attractive to them, they’ll go somewhere else.”

So while Siegersma denies the force is in crisis, he and his recruiters are nevertheless ramping up their sales pitch, touting the job security, 25-year retirement clause and relatively generous pay that has historically drawn a surfeit of hopefuls to the RCMP. In some cases, they’ve adopted a curiously down-market message. In Manitoba, for example, the organization commissioned advertising spots on radio stations and in campus newspapers emphasizing that applicants don’t need a university degree or the ability to speak French to join up. Siegersma dismisses suggestions the force is dumbing down to reach its targets. “I have neither of those qualifications,” he says, smiling. “I think I’ve done okay.”

It’s this been hard a long to be time liked, since and the if Mounties the charm tried offensive is really about drawing more recruits, the next, obvious question is: where are they going to put these people? That’s where the difficulties truly begin. The 20-year agreement under which the force currently supplies policing services to cities, towns and rural communities across the country expires in 2012, with a general review due to begin next year. The Mounties are almost certain to face pressure to bump up their presence in those places where they provide community policing. Numbers tabled last November by the Conservatives in the House of Commons show a net shortage of 358 officers in provincial and municipal contracts. And in the force’s recent “client satisfaction” surveys, it scored poorly on the issue of effective deployment of resources. “If the RCMP can’t supply the bodies for their contracts, they’re going to lose them,” says Ronald Stansfield, head of the justice studies program at the University of Guelph. “The municipalities will go out and create their own police agencies.”

More troubling still is the word of officers on the street, who say the staffing crisis is already putting public safety at risk. One constable posted in B.C.’s Lower Mainland says he attends between 20 and 40 calls on an average Friday or Saturday night, each of which requires him to write up an investigative file.

“Of those, you might get three or four that really need to be investigated,” says the officer, and with such a heavy workload, officers spend their days off buried under paperwork. Worse, he says, they begin to cut corners. “Instead of investigating a case, they’re looking for ways out. They want to kill that file as soon as possible.”

Their means of pinching off investigations are varied. Sometimes officers stop investigating if witnesses can’t provide a slam-dunk identification of a perpetrator, the constable says. Or they might try to discourage victims—implicitly or not so implicitly—from pressing charges. “Let’s say two people who are drunk have beaten each other up fairly badly—broken noses, bleeding,” he explains. “You find witnesses who say, yup, that guy started it by taking a beer bottle and smashing it over that guy’s head.

“Well, how many times have I seen a police officer go up to the victim and say, ‘You know what? I realize your head hurts and you have a black eye, but this guy is an acquaintance of yours, right? This isn’t going to court until about nine months from now, and by then you’re going to forget all about this. You’ll have to take a day off work, maybe two. Your boss isn’t going to be happy and you’re going to miss the money. So are you sure you want me to charge him with this?’

“When the guy finally says, ‘Nah, forget it,’ you just write off the file. ‘Victim knows assailant. Victim did not wish to make a statement and did not wish to press charges. Concluded here.’ That kind of stuff happens all the time.”

Like several members who related their experiences for this story, the officer requested anonymity, noting the RCMP has zealously enforced provisions of its code of conduct forbidding officers from “criticizing, ridiculing or complaining about the RCMP’s administration, operations, objectives or policies.” But several other members working in urban detachments have corroborated his account to Maclean’s. And while some consider it “good policing,” British Columbians saw the potential result of this practice in September 2004, when a rookie constable, Mike Pfeifer, admitted during a coroner’s inquest that he failed to properly investigate a spousal violence complaint in Burnaby. Rather than arresting the accused man, Bryan Heron, as per the force’s investigative procedures in domestic violence cases, Pfeifer said he hurriedly closed the file. One week later, Heron walked into his estranged wife’s hospital room and shot both her and her 68-year-old mother to death.

Such world chilling of federal outcomes policing. are There, rarer RCMP in the investigations tend to be lengthy affairs aimed at more savvy suspects. Yet officers in federal enforcement are no less vocal, no less urgent than street-level patrolmen about the deterioration of their units. One is Staff Sgt. Gaétan Delisle, a 30-year veteran based in Montreal who has run afoul of his superiors in the past for speaking his mind about problems on the force. Apparently unfazed, he points to Montreal’s drug enforcement section when asked about the state of federal policing, saying the unit has fallen from its normal complement of about 75 officers to 20 or 25 as the brass siphons off bodies to fill contracts in Western Canada. Increasingly, he says, members of the Montreal section have watched large-scale violations go by, even when they had solid intelligence of wrongdoing. “They’ve even been forced to tell international partners wanting them to do investigations, ‘Look, we can’t. We barely have the manpower to do the bare bones of our duties because all of our personnel have been taken away.’ ”

Delisle’s colleagues in other parts of the country tell similar stories. “Contract’s the priority,” grumbles one veteran officer in a federal policing unit in southern Ontario. “We have to have the people in uniform to cover our contracts and the attitude is that we’ll get people when we can.” And while no one’s denying that the life-and-death stakes of patrol-level policing demand urgent response, analysts warn the RCMP has little hope of solving cases such as the alleged income-trust leak from Finance Minister Ralph Goodale’s office unless it takes its role as a national agency more seriously. “They just don’t have the resources to develop the centralized expertise they should be developing,” says Ronald Melchers, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa. “Canada has always resisted the FBI model, where the federal agency is really a resource pool for policing, developing innovative technologies, approaches, methods and training. There’s a lot to be said for that. Maybe it’s something we should look at more closely.”

As things are, the RCMP has a great enough challenge funding its meagre federal operations. The force has never recovered from federal budget cuts in the 1990s, and it’s true that money troubles continue to plague the force. Much of the extra $1 billion Ottawa has added to the force’s annual budget since 1998 has been siphoned away by national security demands brought on by Sept. 11. At the same time, the RCMP is grappling with soaring investigative costs related to technology and legal requirements. Court decisions compelling police to store and process practically every detail of their investigations—notebook entries, tips, minutes of the officers’ own meetings—have doubled the cost of a single federal policing position from what it was 15 years ago, says Deputy Commissioner Tim Killam. One study released earlier this year by the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., found that the number of procedural steps required to execute a simple drug trafficking investigation has risen seven-fold since the mid-1970s.

The force also cautions against reading too much into its clearance rates. Its drug enforcement data, for example, include cases investigated by a variety of personnel across the country, not just dedicated federal enforcement units, notes Staff Sgt. Paul Marsh, a spokesman in Ottawa. Factors that could influence clearance data included changes to reporting methods, legislative amendments and court decisions. “A detailed analysis would have to be conducted to determine what factors contributed to the change,” he says.

The debate over resources, and the uncertainty over performance, merely highlights contradictory forces at the heart of the Mounties’ mandate. They are essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the result, say critics, is inadequacy on both sides of their operation. While the auditor general notes the enormous shortage of officers in federal policing, the Fraser Valley College study notes that RCMP-policed cities have fewer officers per capita than neighbouring cities patrolled by city or regional services. “There’s not one detachment that’s running with the proper resources,” concludes Rob Creasser, vice-president of the B.C. Mounted Police Association and a constable based in Kamloops. “Our risk management model appears to be based on God’s grace.”

Which raises the question of the RCMP’s options. Should the Mounties be focusing their resources on areas more worthy of a national police force? Could they abandon patrol functions altogether, becoming a federal law enforcement agency like the FBI? Or might the RCMP evolve into some hybrid, providing both federal enforcement and general policing to small communities, while leaving the taxing job of patrolling expanding urban areas to other forces?

For now, the likelihood of the RCMP shedding any of its contracts seems remote, not least because it would mean conceding a significant part of its raison d’être. “If they’re sending their bodies, of which they have too few to do the job, to contract policing, that tells you something about their values and priorities,” says Stansfield of the University of Guelph. “It shows where they really think their bread and butter is.” Indeed, the RCMP’s leadership bridles at the suggestion that patrol detachments are a burden. “Our American colleagues envy us for having the levels of policing we do,” says Killam from RCMP headquarters in Ottawa. “Contract policing is where most of us in this organization gain our experience to be good police officers, good investigators. Without it, we’d be hamstrung for expertise.”

Moreover, provinces using RCMP services have little incentive to create their own police forces, notes Chris Murphy, a law enforcement expert at Dalhousie University who has studied the RCMP. Under current arrangements, Ottawa picks up 30 per cent of the policing tab for provinces that use the Mounties, and 10 per cent for municipalities. Even if the feds managed to reduce their share after 2012, any province, region or city that starts up its own force would likely save little money. “The RCMP,” he says, “are one of the most efficient deployment models out there.” He may not know it yet, but this is all bad news for ambitious young constables like Keith Johnston. Back in Regina, his spirits are running high as the graduation drill display ends, and about 150 or so family and friends of the new Mounties begin filing from the hall. It will be another 20 hours before the auditor general releases her bleak report, and for now Johnston’s dreams are full. Commissioner Zaccardelli has made a surprise appearance at the ceremony, welcoming the grads to “the great legacy” of the horsemen. “My grandparents and parents couldn’t be more proud,” says Johnston, glancing at a clutch of relatives who have come to see him sworn in. “The RCMP is a symbol of Canada.”

Perhaps. But the Mounties are also supposed to uphold something a lot more prosaic than the spirit of a nation. They’re supposed to represent excellence in law enforcement, an identity impossible to maintain if their efforts increasingly end in confusion and failure. Preserving the status quo, therefore, may be no favour to officers like Johnston. If the voices of dissent are right, it’s both a betrayal of their trust and—by extension—a shabby way to treat a national icon.