OTTAWA - The RCMP must take "swift and effective action" on complaints of workplace bullying and harassment to restore the shaken confidence of both members and the public, says the watchdog that oversees the national police force.
In a report Thursday, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP recommended fundamental changes to the way in which internal grievances about harassment are handled by the Mounties.
It called for a more independent process, strict timelines for responding to accusations and force-wide training on the issue.
The commission said its investigation did not point to a systemic problem of sexual harassment within the police force, despite intense publicity about difficulties and grievances.
However, the report said the simple perception of a pattern of poor treatment of employees is enough to rattle public confidence and tarnish the force's reputation.
In their own report, focusing on women in the RCMP, the Mounties said Thursday they would examine the commission's recommendations and implement them "as appropriate."
"Harassment has no place in the RCMP," the force said, pledging "zero tolerance" and outlining steps taken to date.
The Mounties also signalled a desire for a broad "reconciliation campaign" to heal rifts with employees who have suffered harassment.
"I'd like to get this all behind us," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said in an interview.
The commission's investigation — which included a statistical review, interviews with members and public submissions — found the RCMP was "probably no better nor no worse than most other large organizations" on the issue of harassment, said Ian McPhail, interim chairman of the complaints body.
"The fact is, of course, that — as our national police force — it's got to be better," he said in an interview. "And harassment of any sort is just not acceptable."
Several female RCMP officers have come forward with complaints since Cpl. Catherine Galliford went public in 2011 with allegations of harassment within the force in British Columbia.
Men have also complained of abusive behaviour and intimidation.
The investigation found that from February 2005 through mid-November 2011, 718 harassment complaints were filed by employees, representing 2.5 per cent of all staff.
Ninety per cent of the complaints involved allegations of bullying, while four per cent concerned sexual harassment.
Just under half of complainants were male, 44 per cent female and seven per cent unknown.
But the report cautions that it was difficult to measure the scope of the issue and recommends the RCMP implement a national system of data collection to capture all incidences of workplace conflict, including harassment.
The complaints commission says harassment can have profound effects on the victimized employee, from feelings of fear and humiliation to mental breakdown and even post-traumatic stress.
"I felt completely alone and I felt like a failure," one unnamed RCMP officer told the complaints commission.
"I could not believe that my RCMP was treating me in such a callous and disrespectful manner when I had always worked so hard to do my duty and to better the organization."
Said another: "My launching a complaint against a commissioned officer of the RCMP has met with devastating results for me and my career in the RCMP."
McPhail said his "heart goes out" to RCMP members who pay such a heavy price.
"People who join the RCMP by and large do so out of a strong sense of idealism, and to do something for the country," he said. "And it's tragic when that's the result."
The commission found the complex system for dealing with complaints meant some took as long as four years to process.
"That's clearly unacceptable. No one can fairly be expected to have their lives and their careers on hold for up to four years while a complaint is resolved," McPhail said.
"People see that sort of thing happening and even if they have a legitimate complaint, they're not going to step forward."
Many told the commission the current process for handling harassment complaints within the RCMP lacked independence, with some charging that the final decision-maker displayed bias or a conflict of interest in that they were "protecting their own."
The commission recommends centralized monitoring and co-ordination of all RCMP decisions with respect to harassment to ensure consistency. It also says those responsible for dealing with harassment allegations should report directly to a senior executive — such as the RCMP's professional integrity officer — outside the force's divisional chain-of-command structures.
In addition, there should be "clearly defined" standards for those who investigate harassment complaints, appropriate training, and greater input from both the complainant and the respondent.
Finally, the commission recommends that an outside body hear appeals from dissatisfied complainants.
In its report, Gender and Respect, the RCMP said Thursday it had already taken some steps toward changing the way it addresses harassment, including:
— Centralized administration of oversight and administration of cases;
— Increased nationwide harassment training;
— Efforts to meet Treasury Board Secretariat timeline standards of 12 months from receipt of a complaint to determination of whether it is founded.
However, the Mounties say their hands are somewhat tied pending passage of legislation before Parliament that would give the RCMP commissioner authority to establish a process for the investigation and resolution of harassment complaints.
The bill introduced last year by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews would also arm a revamped public complaints commission with powers to monitor how the force is dealing with harassment.
McPhail said the bill would open the door for the RCMP to adopt the blueprint outlined by the complaints commission.
"Legislation does not in and of itself solve problems," he said. "But it enables the people involved to solve those problems. And certainly the minister and the commissioner have made it quite clear that this is an important priority for both of them."
Paulson said he wants harassment allegations dealt with at the earliest possible opportunity.
"The point is to get to a position where we can resolve these things in the first instance at the lowest possible level."
Paulson said he also understands the need for independence in probing claims. "I get that, in certain circumstances, members who are feeling harassed may not have a high degree of comfort in raising that with the person that's harassing them."
The RCMP noted Thursday that there are ongoing lawsuits against the force as a result of alleged behaviour by members, including one brought by women seeking certification as a class action.
The force says it is working with counsel to assess and, where appropriate, expeditiously resolve outstanding cases.
"The RCMP stands little to gain by denying the obvious — and it will not do so," the force's report says. "As long as these cases dominate the public discourse they will undermine public confidence in our institution and consume effort. Where wrong has been committed, it will be made right."
However, it added that rewarding claims that lack merit would hinder the force's desire to initiate a broad "once-and-for-all" reconciliation campaign with past and present employees who were genuinely harassed.
"We must push past this risk and work with the government to implement such an approach."
Paulson said this might take the form of a general apology, or perhaps specific overtures to individuals.
"I think, frankly, most people are interested in a recognition that, OK, this happened to me," he said.
"I'm looking at options and alternatives, and inviting advice."