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Saturday, May 02, 2009

RCMP struggling to turn the corner

May 2, 2009
Tonda MacCharles, Toronto Star

OTTAWA – Bill Elliott, the guy who's never been a cop, has worked hard to connect with the Mounties he's been leading for nearly two years.

He handed out his personal email address to front-line officers. Held town halls. Rode in cruisers on patrol. Travelled the breadth of the country and as far as Afghanistan to visit far-flung posts.

He's done whatever it takes, gestures small and large, to show he's listening.

The 2007 appointment by the Conservative government of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioner who has never worn the uniform was supposed to usher in a new era of transparency, accountability and change.

It hasn't turned out that way.

As the new commissioner has connected with the Mounties, he has lost touch with the civilians he was supposed to represent.

Elliott's tenure has been marked by the same sort of secrecy and efforts to stonewall public attempts to get information – particularly about Tasers – as any of his predecessors faced in earlier crises.

Amid a growing storm over the death of Robert Dziekanski, Elliott has appeared at a handful of parliamentary committees, delivered a few speeches, and conducted hasty scrums on the run, but refused repeated requests from national media to sit down for an interview.

Dziekanski, a unilingual Polish immigrant, died moments after four Mounties took charge of him in the Vancouver airport and zapped him five times with a Taser.

It was October 2007, just three months into Elliott's term.

Elliott and his boss, then-minister of public safety Stockwell Day, immediately set in motion a series of bureaucratic responses to Dziekanski's death: investigations, policy reviews and studies.

Yet after 21 months on the job, Elliott is all but invisible to Canadians.

Elliott did unexpectedly sit down with the Toronto Star recently, on an hour's notice, and declared there has been no real overall loss of confidence in the RCMP.

People he meets tell him the force is doing a great job, and he insists there's no hard polling data to suggest otherwise. Yet he's concerned about a "potential" loss of confidence.

He should be.

Much is riding on Elliott's management: for the Conservatives, the Mounties and the public.

He came to the job after the force was rattled by the deaths of four young officers in Mayerthorpe and revelations of mismanagement of members' pension and benefits funds. It was also amid the fallout from two inquiries into the Mideast detentions of four Muslim Canadians and the ongoing inquiry into the Air India crash.

A lawyer, former Conservative senior staffer in the late 1980s to then-deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski, public servant and a former national security adviser to Liberal and Conservative prime ministers, he was never a high profile, outgoing figure.

With a bureaucratic background at the Privy Council, Public Safety, Transport Canada and Justice, Elliott was an unlikely, but perhaps logical choice for a government looking to dampen controversy.

In the interview, he displays a lawyer's attention to detail – quoting past news conferences verbatim – and a politician's ease of argument.

Elliott suggests he shunned any extensive interview until now because he didn't want it to be just about Tasers. He was waiting until the uproar eased.

"But there is no lull," he admits.

If anything, the storm over Tasers is growing.

Testimony at the inquiry led by Justice Thomas Braidwood in British Columbia is challenging the credibility of the RCMP.

A picture has emerged of a force that released incorrect details about Dziekanski's death – that bolstered its officers' claim the bewildered man was combative – and withheld damning details, including the fact he was hit five times. There was an initial effort to suppress or delay public release of the video that would contradict the force's version of events.

Insiders say Elliott has kept a tight grip on "everything to do with Tasers."

Nevertheless, the RCMP's handling of the tragedy has renewed calls by many opposition MPs for more robust civilian oversight of the RCMP.

Frustrated by Elliott's own ambiguous testimony at a parliamentary committee, the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and New Democrats want the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP to be given more muscle, with independent powers to launch investigations of RCMP activities, including the power to subpoena witnesses and to compel the production of documents. The Security Intelligence Review Committee – the civilian body that reviews CSIS, Canada's spy agency – has such power.

Elliott says he believes more independent civilian oversight is needed. Just not too much more.

He acknowledges a "gap" in oversight of only the RCMP's national security activities. People caught up in terrorism investigations may never even know the Mounties are onto them, and may never be in a position to file a public complaint, he admits.

So a watchdog agency with independent audit powers "makes sense in the context of national security." But that's it.

Elliott disputes any suggestions the RCMP is politically directed. He insists it is entirely independent when it comes to deciding who, and how, to investigate.

However, Elliott adds: "Sometimes I think we tend to overplay the independence card."

He says it is "foolhardy" for the force to think it is independent of political decisions when it comes to budgets and broader law enforcement priorities. He gives examples: it was a "political decision, a cabinet decision" to focus resources on markets fraud enforcement and border security.

If anything, Elliott says, the RCMP needs to be more politically savvy, "more engaged and engaging" when it comes to identifying its needs and priorities.

For that, it seems, the Mounties have got the right man.

"One of the things I bring personally to the job is some understanding and experience with respect to how government works and how government decisions are taken," he says.

He points to the all-important decision on how to enhance independent oversight and review of the force – a decision the current public safety minister, Peter Van Loan, says will be made only after the Conservative government receives the final report from the Air India inquiry.

"Those are clearly not decisions for the RCMP," Elliott acknowledges.

"But surely, we should make our views and our interests known to the decision-makers. Because at the end of the day, the government is going to make a decision. Parliament is going to make a decision. And we are going to have to live with that decision."

The interview is over. His executive assistant has interrupted a couple times to point to the clock.

But the next day, Elliott calls back to elaborate on a couple of answers. Without a policing background, he acknowledges he is at a disadvantage when it comes to doing a job that used to belong to the top cop. But if anything, he says, it has forced him to consult more broadly and listen more carefully to the officers who do have that background. "I think we have a lot more open dialogue now than was the case in the past."

Perhaps so. It's just rarely a dialogue with the public.

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