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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The man who confirmed what we all suspected about the RCMP

December 10, 2009
Gary Mason, Globe and Mail

When the federal government announced it wouldn't be renewing Paul Kennedy's term as head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, the soon-to-be-jobless civil servant chose not to say anything.

Well, now he's spoken.

Mr. Kennedy's report into the RCMP's conduct in the Robert Dziekanski affair is as devastating a critique of our national police force as you'll find. And the same federal government that told Mr. Kennedy he's done at the end of the year must share some of the blame.

Many of the RCMP's well-documented failings – ones the federal government has steadfastly refused to address – are at the root of the case in which Mr. Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant, died after being tasered at Vancouver airport two years ago.

This is not a report Mr. Kennedy would have felt comfortable writing when he first started his job. After four years, though, he's learned a lot. He better understands, too, how increasingly tenuous support for the RCMP is in our country. As such, Mr. Kennedy said the death of Mr. Dziekanski represents a “defining moment in the history of the force.” He didn't say why. But it's likely obvious.

The Dziekanski case is the denouement of a pernicious period for the RCMP in which its reputation and credibility have been bloodied and battered. How the force (and the federal government) responds to this challenge will determine its future.

If nothing else, the Kennedy report is a clarion call for change, especially when it comes to the contentious matter of police investigating themselves. The public needs to have complete faith in any investigative process that centres around the conduct of a police officer. When that investigation is handled by fellow police officers – as it was in the Dziekanski case – and is found to be terribly flawed – as it was in the Dziekanski case – then the public loses trust in the very institution it needs to trust most.

Many of the investigative deficiencies have already been revealed. Still, no matter how many times you hear about the screw-ups, it makes you shudder with rage.

Like the four officers involved in the Dziekanski encounter giving virtually identical statements to investigators. How is that possible? Perhaps it's because they were allowed to compare notes ahead of time. They also didn't seem to take into account that there was a video of the incident – one they hadn't seen but knew existed. Surprise, surprise then, when the video version was decidedly different from the self-serving explanations offered by the officers in their statements. Yet, they were never asked to justify the discrepancies.

As outlined in the Kennedy report, the RCMP's head investigator said he didn't want to show the officers the video because it might have been too “traumatic for them.” Right. Better to sweep the inconsistencies under the carpet. Mr. Kennedy said he did not accept any version of events given by the four officers. Yet, the RCMP accepted their every word.

Recall the Mounties' investigation of the Ian Bush case. Four years ago, Mr. Bush, a 22-year-old logger, was shot in the back of the head by an RCMP officer in the Houston, B.C., detachment after being arrested for holding an open bottle of beer outside a hockey arena. The officer who shot Mr. Bush was never charged, even though there were serious questions about the credibility of his story.

A year later, the RCMP announced a proposal designed to alleviate the public's concerns about the quality and impartiality of the Mounties' investigations. Under the Independent Observer program, someone from Mr. Kennedy's office would have a front-row seat in the investigative process when the Mounties were probing one of their own. The observer couldn't make any real-time suggestions if he saw something he didn't like; he was there only to observe. It was a pointless public-relations exercise.

Never was that more evident than in the Dziekanski case. The independent observer reported to Mr. Kennedy that there were no outward signs of bias on the part of the investigators. In other words, everything about the probe was fine. But bias isn't always on open display or manifestly evident in what people do. More often, it's a product of what they don't do.

The RCMP investigation into the death of Mr. Dziekanski was a travesty of justice. Paul Kennedy's report simply confirmed what we all suspected.

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