Darryl T. Davies (The Daily News) - While the RCMP deals with a variety of disciplinary problems within its organization, the situation isn’t helped when police officers who are charged under the Criminal Code of Canada have their charges dropped or stayed by the Crown because it took too long to bring them to trial.
For example, just recently a Surrey RCMP officer, who remains on administrative duties, had assault charges stayed against him in B.C. Provincial Court because they took too long to get to trial. Const. Saeed was charged with two counts of assault in connection with an incident that took place following a domestic disturbance on May 19, 2009. The lawyer representing Saeed successfully argued that there was a 30-month delay on a second investigation conducted by the RCMP shortly before Saeed’s case was set to go to trial.
Canadians are still waiting for the RCMP officers who were charged with perjury in the Braidwood inquiry back in 2006 to face charges in a criminal court. It’s a well-known precept in the criminal justice system that “justice delayed is justice denied.” It’s unacceptable that such serious cases are being allowed to languish for months and even years before they are brought to trial. The result of such delays not only erodes respect for the criminal justice system but it simply reinforces the fact that when it comes to RCMP officers the federal government is failing to hold officers accountable whenever they break the law.
There are no valid reasons to allow criminal charges against RCMP officers to be delayed, ad infinitum. The fact is that these delays can end up costing Canadian taxpayers thousands of dollars in lawsuits and court costs. In the matter of Saeed, a lawsuit has been filed against the officer, the Minister of Public Safety, the Solicitor-General of the province and the officer in charge of the Surrey RCMP detachment.
What is troubling about Saeed’s case is that this is not the first time that he has been in trouble.
Just three months prior to this incident, he allegedly dragged Trina Westad of Surrey from her car and slammed her to the ground following a routine traffic stop. A lawsuit for this matter is also before the courts. It is fair to ask: Why should Canadians have to foot the bill for illegal acts by RCMP officers? Why should criminal charges be stayed against officers in such circumstances and what message does this send to Canadians about the way RCMP officers are dealt by the legal system when compared to private citizens charged with similar crimes?
Recently, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled Bill C-42 in the House of Commons, which makes a number of important changes to the RCMP Act. These amendments provide the force with the legal and statutory powers it requires to deal with disciplinary issues in a more effective and expeditious manner. The bill also includes the establishment of an independent public complaints commission to replace the previous public complaints commission against the RCMP. Unlike its predecessor, the new commission will have strong investigative powers, including the right to compel witnesses to testify. While these changes are welcome news, it’s unfortunate that the minister didn’t go further by having this commission report directly to Parliament as opposed to a minister of the Crown.
Still, for an organization as dysfunctional as the RCMP, it’s a step in the right direction.
We should keep in mind that the problems facing the RCMP involve more than just disciplinary matters. The fact is that there are a significant number of RCMP officers facing criminal charges across the country. Legislation cannot by itself change attitudes and if the RCMP hopes to regain the public’s trust and respect, they must make some catastrophic changes to the way they operate as an organization. In my view, this means modernizing the way they train recruits, the way they mentor and supervise junior officers in the field and the way in which they award promotions among the rank and file. At the same time, crowns and courts in this country will have to do their part by holding RCMP officers accountable whenever they are convicted of a crime in a court of law.
In his enthusiasm to restore the image of the RCMP, Commissioner Bob Paulson must not forget that important safeguards such as due process and the presumption of innocence are cornerstones of our legal system in Canada.
They must not and cannot under any circumstances be jettisoned for the sake of appearance and expediency. If in the rush to effect change these vital principles are not adhered to there is a real danger that the RCMP might merely reinforce that well known maxim “that the more things change the more they stay the same.”
For a once-proud policing organization such as the RCMP that could prove to be disastrous.
Darryl T Davies is a professor of criminology and criminal justice in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.