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Saturday, December 19, 2009

A disturbing view of RCMP oversight

December 19, 2009
Gary Mason, Globe and Mail

As he prepares to leave office, Paul Kennedy wishes he could tell Canadians that the job of being head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP will be in good hands. But he can't.

Unless the federal government announces a successor by year's end - which is unlikely - no one will be in charge of civilian oversight of our troubled national police force.

"When I'm gone, there will be nobody to sign any decisions or reports," said Mr. Kennedy, who was commissioner of the CPC for four years. "There will be no one to authorize further investigations, to initiate complaints against the RCMP, nothing. Civilian oversight will be dead in the water."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Kennedy painted a disturbing picture of the state of civilian oversight of the RCMP. Although the federal government has hinted at plans to enhance the CPC's powers, including independent investigations, Mr. Kennedy isn't convinced.

The Conservative government promised him the same thing and never delivered, he said. Mr. Kennedy urged the public to be vigilant for signs of the "politicians' moonwalk" - a phenomenon in which elected leaders introduce legislation that gives the illusion of giant steps forward, but "really what they're doing is sliding backwards."

"I've seen it before," said Mr. Kennedy, who was a federal prosecutor before becoming one of the most respected civil servants in Ottawa.

At the CPC, Mr. Kennedy frequently clashed with the RCMP over issues including taser use and police investigating themselves. He was never reluctant to put heat on the federal government to give the CPC the power to conduct thorough and competent investigations.

He declined to discuss speculation that he was let go because the Mounties and the Conservatives had had enough of his public criticisms. The federal government did not tell him why it did not extend his contract.

Mr. Kennedy never hid his frustration over many aspects of the relationship between his commission and the RCMP. And as he prepares to depart, it is evident many of the problems he identified early in his mandate still exist. Such as:

Powers: The CPC needs to be able to subpoena RCMP records and compel officers to testify under oath. Without that authority, it will never truly get to the bottom of any investigation. "If you don't have access to all the information you have a credibility problem," Mr. Kennedy said.

Funding: Some of the CPC's best work was in 2008, when it took in-depth looks at taser use and police investigating police. These broader reviews that allowed the CPC to see if systemic issues were behind individual complaints led to some of the most important recommendations of Mr. Kennedy's commission. But Ottawa took away the funding that allowed this after one year.

"If I can't do that work then I don't know there's a problem," Mr. Kennedy said. "And if I can't identify a problem then everything's perfect, isn't it?"

Complaints: All complaints against the RCMP should go to the CPC first. Many don't, including serious allegations. The RCMP often handle these "informally." This shouldn't happen, Mr. Kennedy said. "The police have an interest ... in suppressing the actual complaints themselves or the number of complaints," he said.

Funding II: The CPC's base budget is $5.1-million. For the past few years, it has received an extra $3.1-million to do outreach work that the commission used to make itself known, to aboriginal communities in particular. It is in danger of losing this money. Mr. Kennedy estimates the CPC needs $15-million to $17-million annually to carry out its functions. That is a fraction of what similar agencies around the world get. "If the CPC's budget goes back to $5.1-million, then you're effectively putting it on life support," Mr. Kennedy said.

Delays: When Mr. Kennedy finishes looking into a civilian complaint, his report goes to the RCMP. Often the force takes ages to respond. In one case it was 805 days, in another 734. This is a problem for many reasons. In some cases the conduct of an officer constitutes grounds for criminal charges, such as common assault. But there is a limitation period under the criminal code of six months to a year for that charge to be laid. Hanging on to a report ensures the RCMP that its officers can't be criminally charged or even internally disciplined.

Mr. Kennedy said the Mounties carry out many activities under the guise of national security that get no public scrutiny.

"If you're a national security target being looked at by the RCMP, you don't know you're being looked at, so you're not in a position to complain that you're under surveillance or being wiretapped or whatever may be going on," Mr. Kennedy said. After four years of trying to shed light into the dark corners of our national police force, he says the time has long since past for the government and the RCMP to agree on a oversight formula in which the public can have faith.

"There is a great deal riding on it," he said. "The government and RCMP need to produce meaningful change. It needs to show that they understand the force has a major problem that needs to be fixed."

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