As the RCMP faces backlash for how some officers handle mental health calls, use excessive force and discriminate against Indigenous people, the force’s watchdog has quietly begun making public the results of its misconduct reviews.
Of the 23 reviews posted so far, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) determined officers did not provide people in their custody with proper medical care, delayed allowing people access to legal counsel, botched sexual assault investigations and unnecessarily punched and kneed people under arrest.
“The chairperson is committed to making the complaint process as transparent as possible for everyone involved while respecting people’s privacy rights,” said CRCC spokesperson Kate McDerby of Michelaine Lahaie, who was appointed in 2019.
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The identities of the complainants and officers involved, and where and when the incident happened are not included in the findings online.
In previous years, the CRCC has posted a handful of sample findings but now plans to post all 250 of the reviews it completes each year, starting with those from 2019-20, McDerby said.
Despite being the watchdog for Canada’s largest police force, the CRCC has long been criticized by criminal justice experts for having no teeth, constricted by the RCMP Act. The legislation doesn’t require the RCMP to respond to the CRCC within a specific time frame or report back on whether it has implemented the watchdog’s recommendations.
Posting its reviews online is one way to work within the confines of the legislation and change the culture of secrecy, said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University.
“I think the CRCC is sort of saying, people are looking for more accountability and transparency. And they’re not getting it,” said Leuprecht. “So the CRCC is going to work within the confines of the framework to try to bring greater transparency to the process and results.”
Carleton University criminology Prof. Darryl Davies, however, described this move for greater transparency as “useless.”
“I’m not interested in knowing how many cases the RCMP have botched. I’m interested in knowing that the consequences and the recommendations of any oversight body are acted upon,” Davies said. “And that if they do not implement them in a very compressed timeframe, then the commissioner of the RCMP is held accountable by the parliament of Canada.”
About 3,000 complaints are filed with the CRCC against the RCMP each year, however virtually all of them are investigated first by the RCMP. If the complainant is not satisfied with the outcome, then the CRCC may review the case (usually based on evidence collected by police) and make its own recommendations. The watchdog investigates up to 12 per cent of all complaints, McDerby said.
Triaging the most significant cases is important, though, or else the watchdog would be overwhelmed with reviews, said University of the Fraser Valley criminology Prof. Irwin Cohen.
And while most of the published reviews determine police misconduct did occur, contradicting the RCMP’s initial findings, that means the independent watchdog system is working.
“It is really quite important to have some independent oversight to say to the RCMP, your interpretation of the policy or case law isn’t the way the public understands this.”
In one case, two RCMP officers were called to check in on a person possibly experiencing a mental health crisis. When they arrived at the person’s home, they claimed to smell marijuana, and arrested the person, punching them twice in the head and fracturing one of their ribs.
However, the officers didn’t actually search for or find any weed.
The person filed a complaint about the officers’ conduct, but the RCMP found the use of force and arrest was reasonable.
“Lengthy delays serve to obscure transparency, dilute the effect of findings, and reduce or eliminate the value of recommendations.”
In its review, the CRCC determined the opposite. In fact, the CRCC said, the officers had no intention to pursue a marijuana possession investigation at all, but rather used it as an excuse to make the unlawful arrest.
“The purpose of the police intervention was related to the complainant’s mental health,” the CRCC wrote. “Despite this knowledge, the RCMP members approached the complainant from the angle of a criminal investigation.”
The CRCC said the RCMP should apologize and review its national policy on use of force against people in crisis, and that the officers should receive guidance on use of force, note-taking and reporting.
It took almost three years for the commissioner to respond and accept the recommendations, stalling changes that could help officers avoid a similar situation in the future.
“Lengthy delays serve to obscure transparency, dilute the effect of findings, and reduce or eliminate the value of recommendations,” the CRCC said in its review. “Public confidence and trust in the RCMP are eroded when civilian oversight is perceived to be delayed.”
Delays are such an issue that in December 2019, the RCMP and CRCC signed a memorandum of understanding, where Commissioner Brenda Lucki promised to respond to the findings within six months.
However, that timeline is already off track. Last winter, the CRCC issued 15 reports that required a response from the RCMP, said McDerby. Nine months later, “the RCMP has not provided a response to any of these reports,” she said.
In one instance, the CRCC has waited four years and counting for the RCMP to respond to its review, McDerby said.
To create real change within the RCMP, the legislation needs to be updated to give the CRCC the authority to issue mandatory recommendations the RCMP must respond to within a set timeframe, said Davies.
“If they fail to do so, there are serious financial consequences, and people can be fired. I think that a commissioner must be held accountable,” he said.
Other recently published reviews raise red flags about how officers interact with the public, and what conduct the RCMP considers acceptable. These cases include:
- An off-duty RCMP officer, with no police identification, was at a public beach when she intervened as a group of teenagers had drug paraphernalia and alcohol. She detained, arrested and used force against them. The CRCC found “personal factors” drove her to improperly place herself on duty and her actions were unsafe.
- A man was accused of being intoxicated and getting into an altercation at a nightclub. While the RCMP was arresting the man, he suffered a head injury. He was detained for 10 hours with no medical attention for the bleeding wound. The RCMP did not notify his family or friends of his arrest, conduct a sobriety test or investigate the validity of the initial complaint — all unacceptable, the CRCC said.
- During what the CRCC called a “flawed sexual assault investigation” an officer arrested an Indigenous teenager in his home in the middle of the night without a warrant, secretly recording the interaction. The teen was later released after proving he was at work when the assault was said to have happened, and there was no evidence to support the allegation.
- In a detachment cell, three RCMP officers beat a man in an attempt to restrain him. One of the officers kneed and punched him in the face, ribs and back, an excessive use of force, the CRCC said.
- A person who regularly and lawfully picketed outside a business was followed by an officer in an unmarked police vehicle, violating the person’s Charter rights and making them feel harassed and intimidated, said the watchdog.