10/03/2012 04:01 EDT | Updated 12/03/2012 05:12 EST

Toews decries disturbing RCMP behaviour as committee studies planned changes

OTTAWA - The public safety minister says "extremely disturbing" reports about RCMP conduct underscore the need for changes at the national police force.

Vic Toews told a Commons committee Wednesday it's essential "that Canadians have full confidence in the RCMP."

The federal government wants to give RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson and his managers clear, effective powers to discipline or even fire people who disgrace the police force.

Toews announced proposed changes in June intended to untie the hands of senior Mounties as they look into complaints. Legislation that would usher in the reforms is now before the Commons public safety committee.

The bill also includes long-promised measures to modernize the watchdog that handles public complaints about the RCMP and enhance transparency when Mounties themselves are under police investigation.

Several female RCMP officers have come forward since Cpl. Catherine Galliford went public in November with allegations of harassment within the force in British Columbia. Men have also complained of abusive behaviour and intimidation.

Sexual harassment complaints comprise about three per cent of the 1,100 harassment grievances filed within the RCMP since 2005, Paulson told the committee. The remainder involve misuse of authority and personal behaviour issues.

When he took over as commissioner late last year, Paulson said that ridding the force of dark-hearted behaviour is one of his priorities. But he soon expressed frustration about the bureaucratic barriers to doing so.

Paulson said Wednesday it became apparent only after taking the top job how difficult trying to change the system would be.

Currently, any serious cases — those requiring more than a reprimand — must be referred to an adjudication board composed of three senior officers who follow a heavily regulated process.

Matters can take up to five years to be resolved and the manager is largely cut out of the loop.

Under the new system, managers would be given more responsibility to deal with day-to-day disciplinary issues — a change Paulson said would require some additional training for supervisors.

If dismissal is a possibility, the manager would be required to refer the case to a conduct board. But the board members would have power to resolve the matter in the most informal and expeditious manner under the circumstances.

There would no longer be a requirement for a hearing in every case.

The force endured intense criticism over a case in which a senior Mountie was not fired despite having sex with subordinates, exposing himself to a colleague and drinking on the job.

Instead, Staff Sgt. Don Ray was reprimanded, demoted a rank and fined 10 days pay.

The RCMP commissioner would have direct powers to fire members for various non-disciplinary reasons, such as poor performance or absenteeism.

New Democrat MP Niki Ashton said Wednesday that some RCMP members may still feel uneasy about going ahead with a complaint because the new system would not be a truly independent process.

Paulson said the goal is to arrive at a solution as early as possible in the process.

Nothing in the bill should take away "from the fair, expedient application of conflict resolution in the workplace," he said.

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