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Saturday, May 16, 2009

One man's quest to give grieving mother the truth

May 16, 2009
GARY MASON, Globe and Mail

It started out as an apology for the role Canada's national police force played in the death of her son, Robert. But in its writing, police psychologist Mike Webster's open letter to Zofia Cisowski became a scathing indictment of the force's leadership.

"So how could this happen?" Mr. Webster writes in his letter to Ms. Cisowski. "The short answer is an inept, insular and archaic group of RCMP executives has let the Force fall out of step with 21st Century policing."

Mr. Webster has a perspective on the RCMP that few do.

He's been associated with the force for more than 30 years. He's been a consultant on undercover operations, hostage-takings and kidnappings. He is recognized as a leader in his field. And this past week, he took the stand at the Braidwood inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski and suggested the four RCMP officers involved in the incident panicked and abandoned their basic training.

Mr. Webster was in the news in the spring of last year when it became public that the RCMP had cut off all his contract work over the fairly mild criticisms he had levelled at the force over the Dziekanski affair. He told me that the letter to Ms. Cisowski is not about sour grapes, but rather an attempt to educate a grieving mother, and an angry public, about how something like this could happen.

It is written by someone who has had an insider's perspective on the cultural evolution that has occurred over the past few decades within the RCMP.

"I thought this would be the closest she would get to a genuine apology from anyone associated with the RCMP," Mr. Webster said in an interview this week. "I mean a genuine apology. If I didn't say anything nobody would. But I also thought she needed to hear someone speak the truth about what's really going on inside the force.

"I thought that might help her explain how things ever got to the point they did on that night at the airport."

In his letter, made available exclusively to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Webster said he holds RCMP management responsible for the decision making by the four officers in the short minutes leading to Mr. Dziekanski's death.

"Unfortunately," Mr. Webster writes in his letter, "the idea of intimidating people is entirely consistent with the RCMP management's way of managing conflict, not only with the public, but also with its own membership.

"The idea of protection is reflective of the RCMP executive's view of the public they police. We have become the 'enemy' and they go to 'war' with us each day, rather than collaborating with us to form a cohesive and consistent approach to policing our communities."

Mr. Webster, who holds a doctorate in psychology, also takes aim at the Criminal Justice Branch's decision not to press charges in connection with Mr. Dziekanski's death. A decision based on an investigation of the incident conducted by the RCMP itself.

"It is a psychologically unsophisticated idea to believe that the RCMP can investigate itself," writes Mr. Webster. "When I say this, I'm not questioning anyone's integrity. I am stating a fundamental principle of human behaviour. Human beings are highly subjective organisms ... we don't like to see things that make us look bad.

"This is why medical doctors shouldn't be diagnosing themselves, researchers should be at arm's length from their own research and I make a lousy psychologist for my own family."

Mr. Webster concludes his letter by saying that he's "deeply sorry for the RCMP's behaviour that contributed to Robert's death."

"I wish I could tell you that the issues ... that are rotting the RCMP from the top down will soon be changing. I won't do that as the RCMP is in need of significant transformational change in order to genuinely re-connect with the public and its own membership."

While he admits to having little faith that anything much will change until the current leadership group in charge of the RCMP is changed, Mr. Webster promises Ms. Cisowski he will continue to "shine a critical light" on the role played by management of the Mounties in her son's death.

That, he says, is the least he can do.

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