(Montreal Gazette) – The RCMP has come a long way since it was epitomized by Sergeant Preston. A long way down, that is.
The fictional Sgt. William Preston, the lead character in a long-running radio serial and early TV series, policed the Yukon, courageously tracking murderers, thieves and claim jumpers, and succouring damsels in distress. Square-jawed, stoic, yet polite and gentle with the law-abiding citizenry that he served, Sgt. Preston personified the prevailing image of the Mounties as incorruptible upholders of the law, officers in a police force that always got its man.
That sterling image became progressively tarnished in recent decades as a string of Mountie misdeeds came to light, from a notorious case of arson 40 years ago to thefts of dynamite and a break-in at Parti Québécois headquarters. More recently has come a series of incidents in which excessive force was gratuitously used against suspects, as epitomized by the notorious Robert Dziekanski Taser incident in British Columbia, which saw the officers involved participate in coverups.
More recently still, a number of former female RCMP officers have come forward to credibly report that throughout their careers with the force they were subjected to systematic discrimination and persistent sexual harassment. In that respect, the RCMP officer currently most prominent in the public eye is Sgt. Don Ray, formerly head of the RCMP polygraph unit in Edmonton, who was found to have used his office as a degenerate party palace. It was established that he had sex there with female subordinates, pressured others to submit to his advances, and plied colleagues with booze that he illicitly stocked in the workplace.
It would be unfair to say that Sgt. Ray now epitomizes the force, as Sgt. Preston once did. The great majority of Mounties conduct themselves honourably and do their best to live up to the force’s noble tradition. But Ray does epitomize what is wrong with the force, both in terms of his behaviour and the way his misdeeds were dealt with.
As scandalous as Ray’s behaviour was – and by accounts his was hardly an isolated case of such misconduct – the measures taken when his actions came to the attention of superiors are equally scandalous. Where, by all rights, he should have been summarily dismissed from the force for his disgraceful conduct, he was merely docked 10 days’ pay, demoted a rank from staff-sergeant to sergeant, and reassigned to another post in neighbouring B.C.
The problem, it appears, is in large part the force’s complex and clunky formal disciplinary process whereby cases are heard by a three-member adjudication board and that allows for extended appeals and referrals that allow accused officers to filibuster the proceedings to inordinate lengths, making leniency a handy expedient for settling cases.
Attitude is also a problem. Part of it is the code of solidarity in police ranks, whereby those who complain of discrimination or report misbehaviour are typically harassed and ostracized by their fellow officers. As well, there is the attitude in the higher ranks that an RCMP officer is the valuable product of expensive training, something that is also said to stack the deck against dismissals.
It is clearly high time to do something about this, and happily action appears to be in the offing.
In a rare gesture, recently appointed RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wrote an open letter to Canadians this week in which he sharply criticized the force’s disciplinary process, as set out in the RCMP Act. He called it an outdated, overly bureaucratic process that limits his ability to enforce discipline in the ranks and get rid of bad apples.
And happily too, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews responded favourably to the commissioner’s appeal and indicated that legislation to amend the RCMP Act to allow more effective policing of the national police is in the offing.
This will require not only a change in the rules governing discipline in the force, but also in the force’s culture. Difficult as this might be, it is in the force’s best interest since the accumulating tales of misconduct have not only tarnished its image, but eroded public confidence in it to the point where citizens are likely to become more reluctant to co-operate with RCMP investigations.
Sgt. Preston might be a relic of a bygone time, but steps must be taken in the future to ensure the same fate for the Sgt. Rays.