02/16/2017 12:25 EST | Updated 02/17/2018 00:12 EST

Watchdog chastises RCMP for poor reporting in missing-persons cases

OTTAWA — An independent watchdog has uncovered shoddy reporting by RCMP officers in northern British Columbia that makes it impossible to tell whether many missing-persons cases were properly investigated.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP also found serious record-keeping gaps, policy weaknesses or compliance issues related to police investigations of public intoxication, personal searches and use of force.

The commission's consultations in almost two dozen communities in the region — where aboriginal people account for 17.5 per cent of the population — showed that many believe "the RCMP is biased against indigenous people." However, the watchdog was "unable to substantiate" the assertion through its policy and file review.

Overall, the commission found no basis to conclude there were "broad, systemic problems" with RCMP actions in northern B.C.

However, it makes 31 recommendations aimed at improving transparency and accountability through better reporting, policies, supervisory review and training. 

"What we do know for certain is that RCMP policing in indigenous communities can be improved," complaints commission chairman Ian McPhail said in an interview.

"The RCMP is working to improve it. We'll want to see the implementation of these changes."

In a reply to McPhail's report, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson supported, or generally supported, all but one of the recommendations. The police force has already made strides on a number of them.

The complaints commission initiated the investigation in May 2013 in response to concerns about policing in northern B.C. raised by individuals and various human rights and civil liberties groups, as well as a provincial inquiry into missing women. 

The commission's long-awaited report is likely to renew discussion of whether the RCMP is doing enough to prevent and investigate cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. The long-festering issue of aboriginal women and girls who disappear — and often end up killed — is now the subject of a federal inquiry.

First Nations and human rights groups said Thursday the report confirms RCMP failings in northern B.C., but they expressed disappointment the commission did not squarely address discrimination and racism.

"The recommendations in this report, while they may help to improve some police practices, will not fix the massive problem of systemic racism that our people experience daily and have had to endure ever since the RCMP started policing our lands and peoples," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

In reviewing occurrence reports from northern B.C. for 2008 to 2012, the RCMP watchdog found more than 46 per cent of the records failed to show that Mounties had investigated missing-persons cases promptly and thoroughly, contrary to force policy.

McPhail said the absent information means "it's not possible to tell how seriously these reports were taken, and there's just a major gap."

The commission says an effective reporting system is not just burdensome paperwork, but allows for both internal and external review of police activities. "Maintaining the integrity of such a system is critical to fostering a culture of transparency within the RCMP."

In his reply, Paulson says the police force has amended its national policy to stipulate that a supervisor must review all missing-persons files to document direction and guidance to members.

The investigation has prompted the complaints commission to examine its own practices, and to work on establishing more awareness and trust in communities, McPhail said.

The commission has opened an office in British Columbia to focus on complaints originating there, particularly among indigenous communities.

The report is an important first step, but the commission's new office "should not shy away from tackling systemic problems with the RCMP's policing of indigenous communities head on," said Farida Deif, Canada Director of Human Rights Watch, which produced one of the reports that prompted the commission's probe. 

During the commission's community consultations, Mounties pointed out the importance of good relations with the people they police and suggested that an urban-based First Nations policing program or strategy was needed in B.C. to emulate successes seen in many smaller communities.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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