Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Waiting to see if the RCMP will really change

Don't be too quick to think the RCMP has really learned from the death of Robert Dziekanski.
Former justice Thomas Braidwood's inquiry report, even with its narrow scope, was devastating. The four officers who responded to a call about a man behaving erratically were incompetent, poorly trained or bad hires. Their actions weren't justified and resulted in Dziekanski's death.
Their statements and written reports were "deliberately misrepresented and overstated" to try and make Dziekanski look bad and justify the officers' actions, Braidwood found. In other words, they lied.
Yet an RCMP internal investigation found no wrongdoing. No one was fired or disciplined. The force said the officers acted appropriately.
Prosecutors, based on the information provided by the RCMP, decided against criminal charges.
And after the death, Braidwood found the RCMP provided the media with statements that weren't deliberately misleading, but included "factual inaccuracies, consistently self-serving, painted Mr. Dziekanski in an unfairly negative, and the officers in an unfairly positive, light."
When the RCMP knew the comments in false, it chose not to correct them - an "error in judgment," Braidwood concludes.
Incompetence is expected in large organizations. The RCMP has about 27,000 employees, about twice as many as the Canadian navy. Things will sometimes go badly wrong. Braidwood noted the case should not reflect unfairly on the reputation of thousands of RCMP officers respected for protecting communities across Canada.
But the RCMP never really acknowledged the officers had done anything wrong.
Quite the opposite. RCMP Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass apologized to Dziekanski's mother earlier this year.
But the apology went through a dozen drafts and Bass, in an internal memo obtained through freedom of information laws, assured his fellow officers he wasn't apologizing for anything the airport four had done. Another apology after the report was released was less equivocal.
While the RCMP was clearing its own, it was diligent in preparing for the inquiry, sending a team of officers to Poland to look into Dziekanski's background. (Which is to say, to dig up dirt). They came back with nothing.
Braidwood's main recommendation was that the RCMP quit investigating themselves when there are concerns or allegations of wrongdoing.
Investigations into potential deaths, serious bodily harm or other possible offences by officers should be conducted by an independent investigation unit staffed by civilians, he recommended.
That's the only way to avoid the perception - or reality - of bias.
It's not a new recommendation. Ontario and Alberta has had such a unit for years. A similar approach has been recommended for B.C.
But the RCMP have always refused such oversight. And since they are responsible for policing about 70 per policing in B.C., the provincial government has never gone ahead.
The provincial government was quick to accept Braidwood's recommendations and promised to create a civilian investigative unit to deal with cases of possible police wrongdoing.
The RCMP, in February, said it would accept independent investigation if provinces had the ability to conduct them.
But it was not clear that the force would also accept the jurisdiction of the B.C. Police Complaints Commission. That too is necessary to ensure true accountability.
None of this is to slight the job done by police officers every day. They face physical risks and complex challenges on our behalf. One minute, they are subduing an angry drunk; the next they are effectively social workers trying to sort out some person's problems. They are expected to ignore provocations.
That doesn't reduce the need for accountability. We give police great powers, including the power to take away the liberty - and in rare cases - lives of other citizens.
That kind of power requires checks and balances that satisfy the public interest.
Perhaps the RCMP will learn from the Braidwood inquiry.
But the culture of any large, hierarchal organization is deeply entrenched. And the RCMP culture has too often placed the interests of the force ahead of accountability.
Footonote: The Dziekanski case cannot be treated as an aberration. In a number of deaths and other incidents in B.C. in recent years, the RCMP has acted in a manner that suggested little interest in accountability or concern about the perception of bias in dealing with possible crimes by officers.

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