Who Watches the Watchmen: Police Investigating Themselves

Canada’s police have been going through the ringer lately and rightfully so. We have both civic police and the RCMP. In some cities and jurisdictions the RCMP are the only police force where there is no other policing body. They are spawned from Canada’s oldest police unit, the NorthWest Mounted Police (NWMP). They began with the fur trade, the frontier and the Gold Rush. There are romantic images of Mounties on their horses, dressed in the traditional red serge uniform with the brown stetson hat. They were considered noble and strong, and the Mounties “always get their man” was a tagline for years.

Now, a cumulation of mismanagement, inferior training, bad judgment calls and arrogance have come back to smack the force in the face. Their reputation has deteriorated so much in recent years that they are becoming a laughing stock. It didn’t help that they sold the copyright to their image to Disney. Yes, perhaps Mickey Mouse could do better in red serge.

What has lead to this now lamentable record and public scorn? There are several very public cases, the most notorious, that of Robert Dziekanski who was tasered to death at the Vancouver airport by four RCMP officers. Dziekanski’s biggest fault: he didn’t speak English and was confused from hours of being lost in the airport with inept handling from airport staff. And he picked up a desk stapler. The ensuing inquiry that wrapped up recently showed a farce of statements by the supposedly well-trained Mounties who should be able to resolve many situations with communication and not escalated violence.

Besides statements that contradicted the video footage (and without it Dziekanski would be dead and we would never have come close to the truth) the big, strong and supposedly fit officers feared for their lives and that of their fellow officers, because Dziekanski picked up a desk stapler. As I’ve said before, if these guys get scared so easily then they have no right being a police officer. And this statement, them fearing for their lives, is a crucial phrase that probably every RCMP officer ever investigated for a death at their hand has uttered.

Other notable cases were that of Kevin St. Arnaud, shot dead after being chased through a field and surrendering. The officer, a rookie, said St. Arnaud looked threatening and was overtop of him where he fell, when he fired. Witnesses (including 24-year veteran officer) and forensic evidence indicated the officer was standing and five meters away when he fired, and that St. Arnaud had raised his hands in surrender. The outcome: the officer was not found to have committed any wrongdoing.

The other case was Ian Bush, shot in the back of the head while in police detention. Again, it took place in northern BC and a rooky copy said it was self-defense because he was being choked. Yet Bush was shot in the back of the head, not the side or front. Forensic evidence and character witnesses didn’t match up to what happened. Yet again, the officer feared for his life.

These are just three cases that took place in BC, and rookie cops were involved in two of them But in all three a man died and the officers feared for their lives in questionable circumstances. And in all three, charges were not laid, though the Dziekanski case could still see charges brought against the officers because of its high publicity if nothing else. And in all three cases the police investigated their own.

There have been outcries of biased investigation, which the RCMP adamantly deny. Of course they would but the evidence stacks against them. Questionable outcomes, officers never found in the wrong and a system that perpetuates itself in negligence and inefficient training have knocked the RCMP down to little better than some criminals. Still, this is not the majority of officers, but bad and very notorious publicity hurts their image as a whole.

Some areas in Alberta use retired police officers to investigate deaths involving officers but even so, there is still the possibility of the police protecting their own and staying loyal to an ethic that has been passed down through the years. Having different officers from other regions investigate an event has the same problem. Sometimes junior officers have investigated senior officers, where inexperience will lend itself to abuse or misjudgment.

The recently completed report on RCMP self-investigation recommends “that serious cases involving sexual assault, death or serious injury cases should, in some cases, be turned over to outside investigators to ensure independence.” Absolutely. And though the RCMP are balking at some of these recommendations, there shouldn’t be a problem if an investigative body was set up. These situations are still relatively rare and no matter where a death or sexual assault happened in the province investigators could fly there within two hours.

It will be extremely rare where there could be two cases at once. The RCMP should welcome a nopartial investigation. As well, as I’ve said before they need to look at themselves and their training all over again. New drivers in BC have to display an “N” for a year or two and have certain restrictions. Perhaps rookies in the RCMP should have the same and not be allowed out on their own or maybe even carry a gun until they know how to handle themselves. (Ireland actually runs with no police officers carrying guns.) And some retraining in nonagressive means needs to be carried out. A friend who was once a police officer said that officers are not given much training in martial arts or even negotiation, which means they’ll often go for weapons before negotiation.

I hope the RCMP will see this as a way to buff up their now very tarnished image (especially in BC) and accept the recommendations gracefully. I hope they’ll look at retraining and extended training in peaceful negotiations and in disarming someone without escalating violence. And I hope they will be able to live up to the former image of being Canada’s finest and noble security force.

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