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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Top police psychologist likens RCMP to Putin's Russia

May 14, 2008
GARY MASON, The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — Someone else might have resisted the temptation, especially knowing he might be blackballed as a result. But Mike Webster has never operated that way.

And so, when the respected police psychologist testified this week at the B.C. public inquiry into the use of tasers, he didn't parse his words when asked about the Mounties' decision to zap an unarmed Robert Dziekanski last October, and more recently, a penknife-wielding 82-year-old man lying in a hospital bed in Kamloops.

“I'm embarrassed to be associated with organizations that taser sick old men in hospital beds and confused immigrants who are arriving in the country,” said Mr. Webster, considered one of the top police psychologists in the world.

Even as the words spilled from his mouth, Mr. Webster knew they had the potential to cause him more trouble with the RCMP. He knew because of a chilling incident late last year that still hangs over his association with Canada's national police force.

Mr. Webster is a registered psychologist who deals exclusively with law enforcement agencies. His expertise in conflict resolution has been sought to help resolve some of the most volatile situations in recent years, including the showdown with Branch Davidian followers in Waco, Tex., in 1993. He was widely credited with helping avert a bloodbath during the RCMP standoff with native protesters at Gustafson Lake, B.C., in 1995.

He has worked on a contract and fee-for-service basis with the RCMP for more than 30 years. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, much of his work with the Mounties has been in the area of intelligence gathering. After Mr. Dziekanski died at the Vancouver International Airport last October, media outlets in B.C. sought Mr. Webster's opinion on the incident. He was honest: he thought it was a disgraceful display of policing. The officers had blasted the troubled Polish immigrant without making any attempt to resolve the matter peacefully.

In early December, Mr. Webster says he received a call from Richard Bent, chief superintendent of the RCMP E Division in Vancouver. The senior Mountie asked Mr. Webster, who lives on Denman Island, B.C., if the two could have a meeting. Mr. Webster knew something was amiss.

He wanted to know immediately what it was about.

“That's when he said it was about the nature of my comments to the media about the Dziekanski incident,” Mr. Webster revealed in an interview Wednesday. “He said: ‘You've upset some of the members here and they're saying things.' I said, ‘Like what?' And he said: ‘Well, they're saying that maybe you shouldn't be getting any more work with the RCMP.'”

Mike Webster nearly dropped the phone.

“There was only one way to interpret that comment,” Mr. Webster said. “It was a clear threat.”

Mr. Webster said he told Chief Supt. Bent that he didn't respond well to threats. And that they wouldn't change his mind in any event. After stewing about the incident over Christmas, Mr. Webster articulated his anger in a letter to Chief Supt. Bent, which he copied to Gary Bass, the RCMP's top man in B.C. In it, he reiterated how offended he was by Chief Supt. Bent's comments, which he considered a blatant form of intimidation.

He said he heard nothing back. But he did begin hearing from his friends inside the force. He said one relayed to him that Mr. Webster's outspokenness cost the psychologist a small fee-for-service job. One of Mr. Webster's friends was told: “Don't be hiring Mike Webster. He's in shit with us for being disloyal.” Another told him to expect a call from a top RCMP official in Ottawa who was going to fly out to talk to him.

Sure enough, the call came. Two weeks later, Mr. Webster said he was having lunch with an RCMP inspector from headquarters who scolded him for his Dziekanski comments. He suggested the psychologist was being disloyal to an organization that had been good to him over the years. He said Mr. Webster should have waited until the RCMP had concluded its investigation into the incident before giving any kind of opinion on it.

“I told him I didn't need anything more than the 25 seconds of video that we've all seen over and over again to offer my analysis,” Mr. Webster said. “I really gave him a blast. It was just more of the same. The expectation is that if you work for the Mounties you align your values with the corporate culture and if you don't that's being disloyal and is unhealthy.”

Chief Supt. Bent said in an e-mail Wednesday that he did phone Mr. Webster because of concerns that Mr. Webster was making statements to the media about the RCMP's guidelines for handling potentially violent situations that he felt weren't accurate.

He confirmed that he told Mr. Webster that other RCMP members were upset and didn't want the Mounties to give the renowned intervention specialist any more work. He said it wasn't intended to be a threat.

To Mr. Webster, his run-in with the Mounties reflects a more serious and systemic problem inside the organization, one recognized in the report into the RCMP pension-fund scandal. That report suggested the force was a troubled organization that did not abide dissent of any kind. And those who did offer opposing views were often shunted off to dead-end jobs and forced to wave promotions goodbye.

“As a psychologist, I know it's not healthy for people to live in such an oppressive climate,” Mr. Webster said. “Being a member of the RCMP today is like being part of Putin's Russia; they don't tolerate any opinion that doesn't reflect the party line.”

A devastating charge. Mr. Webster currently has a one-year contract with the Mounties. After it expires next April, he has no idea if more work will be offered to him.

“I find it offensive that I'm expected to park my morals at the door if I'm going to be part of the organization,” Mr. Webster said. “If that's what it means, I won't do it. I just won't.”

Mike Webster has never operated that way.

1 comment:

lynnk kinnucan said...

I have known Dr. Webster -- through interview and conversation -- for years, and know howhighly regarded he is in his field.

I have the profoundest respect for his moral conviction and his willingness to risk speaking out.How many of us would put our livelihood on the line and even continue in the face of persistent and increasing threats?

This should never have been a risk. There should never have been such threats, especially from a law enforcment oganization.The RCMP acted outrageously. In the face of all this Dr. Webster gives me hope and strengthens my own courage.