VANCOUVER (CP) - The RCMP has taken the unusual step of making public an internal memo sent to thousands of officers in an effort to rub off some of the tarnish from recent incidents that have shaken public confidence in the force.
The e-mail, sent to Pacific region officers Friday by Supt. Bill Dingwall, reminds them of the Mounties' proud tradition of integrity and their "amazing success, given the difficult challenges we all face on a daily basis."
It went out just days after an allegation of disgraceful misconduct was thrown out on a technicality against Const. Justin Harris of Prince George, B.C. He was accused of having sex with three underaged female prostitutes.
But this case comes on the heels of one in Houston, B.C., where a young man arrested for having an open beer at an ice rink was somehow shot in the back of the head by a Mountie.
Dingwall said in an interview that the public perception of how the RCMP investigates its own officers is a big concern for the Mounties.
"I can tell you we take this extremely seriously," he said.
"I can tell you that in fact when we have serious allegations lodged against our members they're thoroughly investigated. Aggressively investigated," he said, adding "we don't want bad apples in our organization."
It has been a rough period for the national police force, which is seen and marketed as a Canadian icon.
At the national level, it's reeling from the stinging judicial report into the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian accused falsely of having terrorist ties.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day stated his confidence in the force Friday.
"The RCMP has a long and proud history and one that remains and people across the country have great confidence in the RCMP," he said in Vancouver.
Day said there is work left to do and possible changes needed to the laws governing RCMP officers.
"I also say that no organization is perfect and when there are mistakes within an organization they have to be dealt with. That's been an ongoing process," Day told reporters.
It's evident from Dingwall's memo that even fellow officers have a lot of questions.
"I want to assure you that we will continue to hold our employees accountable for misconduct and inappropriate behaviour. With the nature of our work and the public trust we enjoy, but must continue to earn, we are held to a higher standard that most," the three-page e-mail said.
The force has been criticised for excessive secrecy in cases where its own members are involved. Recently some of that criticism came from the family of Ian Bush, the young man who died in custody after he was arrested for having an open beer.
When the public learned that officer wouldn't be charged, B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal had to explain that the officer was trying to stop Bush from choking the constable unconscious.
And the recent Arar inquiry pointed to the Mounties for falsely linking Arar to a terrorist group, resulting in his imprisonment and torture in Syria.
Dingwall wrote the memo to the 8,500 Pacific region officers to clear up what he called "misinformation" around the Harris disciplinary proceedings. That case was dismissed at an internal police inquiry this week because the investigation into the matter took more than a year.
Dingwall said the force is still contemplating appealing the decision and the officer will remain off the job with pay until a decision is made.
B.C. Mounties get about 650 complaints a year against officers and about eight per cent of those show some sort of misconduct.
Dingwall said it may be time to make changes to the 18-year-old RCMP Act to reflect the way police investigate police and others.
"Times have changed considerably since then. Investigations are much more complicated than they ever have been," Dingwall said.
"So it's clearly timely to review the RCMP Act, particularly the one-year limitation period," he said, referring to the reason Harris's hearing was abruptly cancelled.
Dingwall said he understands the public frustration over not being told about investigations that involve police officers.
"Clearly there (are) things we would love to be able to say, but what we do is we wait and we deal with it in the appropriate forum. Whether it is the criminal justice system, the public complaint process or a coroner's inquest."
He said the public needs to get the message that the RCMP is still a great organization.
"And we're there for the interests of the citizens," he said.
Are the Mounties in B.C. the bungling oafs they seem determined to make themselves out to be?
Let's hope that's the case. If it isn't, we may have an even more serious problem to contend with.
Because the only other explanation for the farce that played out in Vancouver this week is that the cock-up was deliberate.
The story, and it's an ugly one, begins in Prince George as long ago as 1999, when rumours began to circulate that pillars of the community were paying teenage aboriginal prostitutes for sex.
One of the names that cropped up in later police reports was that of RCMP Constable Justin Harris.
Harris has never been charged in connection with the allegations, and has protested his innocence.
But the insistent rumours took on grave substance when a provincial court judge in Prince George, David Ramsay, was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2004 after admitting he paid girls for sexual favours -- some of whom had appeared before him in court.
Ramsay's public disgrace -- in one incident he was said to have smacked a girl's head into his car's dashboard and then left her to walk home naked -- might have ended the affair.
But there was still the little inconvenience of Const. Harris' name in those police reports.
And the allegations were not trivial. One teenage hooker alleged Harris struck her when she refused to fellate him without a condom.
By 2002, senior Mounties were aware of these unproven allegations against Harris -- and of other accusations involving other unnamed members of the force.
But if they were going to take disciplinary action against Harris, they had by law to launch a hearing within a year.
This they failed to do -- at least until 2004, when Harris finally got notification a hearing would be held.
Fast forward to the start of that hearing this week, and it took Harris' lawyer no time at all to persuade a panel of three top Mounties to stop it.
It was indisputable. The legal time limit had long ago run out.
What on earth were the Mounties who launched this proceeding thinking about? Wouldn't a 30-second legal consultation have revealed the gaping flaw in their case?
Const. Harris left the hearing in tears. And no wonder. His name and reputation have taken a beating, without a shred of evidence being heard against him.
And what of the aboriginal community in Prince George, and elsewhere in the province, looking in on this circus in Vancouver?
Given the evidence in the Ramsay case, there is every reason to suppose the women are telling the truth about the abuse they claim to have suffered at the hands of persons in authority.
This is a scandal that has festered for too long. As unpleasant as it may be to rake it all up again, no other course is satisfactory.
A full inquiry is needed. And please, let's keep the RCMP well away from it.
VANCOUVER -- The abrupt end to an RCMP disciplinary hearing into sexual allegations against a Prince George officer is not the first disconcerting event to hit the force in recent years.
The RCMP has made mistakes in a number of high-profile cases, prompting questions about the overall competence of the force in B.C.
Two years ago, for instance, errors by RCMP interrogators led to separate prosecution failures within days of each other, one in the murder case of Chinese student Amanda Zhao in Burnaby, the other in the killing of a native chief's son near Kamloops.
A few years earlier, the RCMP's own internal probe of its investigation into the sex strangling of young Mindy Tran in Kelowna concluded that police mistakes and personnel problems doomed the case against suspect Shannon Murrin from the beginning.
There are also ongoing issues such as RCMP investigations into the deaths of individuals at the hands of police or in police custody, most notably the fatal shooting last year of young Houston mill worker Ian Bush by a rookie constable.
The Mounties' E Division in B.C. is its largest in Canada, with 126 RCMP detachments across the province staffed by more than 5,000 police officers. Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd said the RCMP in this province should be cut some slack, despite the botching of some cases.
"There are some problems, but when you consider the large number of police officers in the province, I'm wary of saying the force . . . is full of rotten apples," Prof. Boyd said.
"Yes, in five or 10 pretty big cases, there have been mistakes, but considering the hundreds and hundreds of cases they are dealing with all the time, how much of a problem is that? The important thing is that they learn from their mistakes."
Just last year, the RCMP's national-security team ordered a dramatic public takedown of three natives in broad daylight on a busy Vancouver bridge. Police seized 14 rifles and a quantity of ammunition from their van. But it turned out the men had just legally purchased the weapons on behalf of an outdoor training program for native youth of the small Tsawataineuk band on Vancouver Island.
Although none of the arrested men was ever charged, police have held on to the rifles for the past 15 months.
Just this week, the band received a letter from the RCMP, pledging to pay the full amount for the seized weapons and ammunition.
Chief Eric Joseph is still miffed.
"There's been no apology from the RCMP," he said yesterday. "We would also like to have some of our legal costs reimbursed, so there's been no closure yet," he said.
"I still don't know what sparked such a high-risk takedown, and for a long time, everyone had a bad impression of us, that we were involved in terrorism or something. Their tactics got out of hand. The youth up here don't like the RCMP."
Other examples of RCMP blunders include:
Mistakenly identifying Dimitrios Pilarinos, who built the famous deck for then premier Glen Clark, as the chief operator of an illegal poker operation at the Lumbermen's Social Club, when he barely knew how to play cards.
Alleging, erroneously, that Joseph Ignace, the mentally retarded son of a key figure in the well-known Gustafsen Lake native standoff against police, fired a shot at RCMP officers. Later, the RCMP released details of Mr. Ignace's youth court record in an effort to link criminals to the standoff.
Bashing down a door and charging into a suspected grow-op within seconds of announcing their presence, prompting the presiding judge to throw out all charges against the operators, because they were not given proper time to answer the door.
A former RCMP constable in Merritt was awarded nearly a million dollars in damages this year, after she sued the force for long standing, on-the-job harassment. The decision is being appealed.
Last month, a federal court judge found RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli guilty of acting unreasonably in firing a B.C. constable.
The RCMP's public-complaints commission is currently investigating two deaths of suspects at the hands of police in the province. One is Mr. Bush; the other is Kevin St. Arnaud, who was fatally shot as he advanced, unarmed, on a young RCMP constable in Vanderhoof.
Prof. Boyd said the RCMP, like most other organizations, is taking on increasing numbers of young employees as baby boomers age and retire. "I don't doubt the police have some demographic challenges, and in that they are no different from any other sector of society," he said. "And overall, I think their training of recruits is pretty good."
SPIRITWOOD, SK -- They are strikingly similar tragedies, both in what Canadians know and what they don't.
The first incident, at Mayerthorpe, Alta., in March of 2005, left four Mounties dead after an ambush by James Roszko, a loner who was well armed, had a lengthy criminal record and possessed an overt hatred of the police.
Then just over two weeks ago in Spiritwood, Sask., two Mounties were mortally injured, shot in the head after a car chase. A third officer escaped injury.
The accused in that case, Curtis Dagenais, is a loner with a history of legal trouble and a distaste for authority. He turned himself into police last week after eluding capture for 12 days.
Six Mounties killed in 16 months, and Canadians have little knowledge of what happened and why. While the Spiritwood shootings are recent and a trial is pending, the Mayerthorpe events took place more than a year ago and the main suspect is dead. Just how much time has to pass before Canadians get a detailed accounting of what transpired and whether the officers' deaths could have been prevented?
For the RCMP, it seems there's no statute of limitations for answers.
"It's a very tight-lipped, conservative organization that doesn't particularly trust the [media]," said Bill Pitt, a former Mountie who is now a criminology professor at the University of Alberta.
Prof. Pitt said he was not surprised by the lack of information being officially disclosed by the Mounties in either case. While every police force battles to balance keeping the public informed while not jeopardizing their investigations, he said, the RCMP's "culture of secrecy" is deeply ingrained and "goes back to its inception" as a national institution.
On occasion, he said, the force's contempt for public disclosure about its actions is "taken almost to the point of absurd."
The Ian Bush case highlights that appraisal. Mr. Bush, 22, was taken into custody in Houston, B.C., in October for having an open beer outside a hockey arena. While in RCMP custody, he was shot in the head and killed.
His family has received no explanation. Police say they are still investigating. When The Globe and Mail asked for an update on the case two months ago, an RCMP spokesman in Vancouver, Staff Sergeant John Ward, offered this explanation: "The public doesn't have a right to know anything. It takes long because it takes long."
Last month, the police investigation into that shooting was submitted to the Crown for review. Now, the province's Attorney-General's Office is figuring out whether criminal charges are warranted.
Invoking a cone of silence -- among officers, families, residents and politicians -- has been a hallmark of an RCMP investigation. The force routinely asks its members not to speak to reporters about cases, leaving that job solely to media handlers.
Almost three weeks after Constables Anthony Gordon, 28, Leo Johnston, 32, Brock Myrol, 29, and Peter Schiemann, 25, were gunned down in Mayerthorpe while investigating what appeared to be a marijuana grow-op and stolen-vehicle-parts operation of a local thug, RCMP Superintendent Rod Knecht issued a memo to officers and staff warning against speculation, criticism and speaking to reporters.
By that point, reporters had already revealed details that the police would have preferred to have kept under wraps and quoted police who were critical of the investigation and what led to the shooting.
Retired RCMP superintendent Clyde Kitteringham, a veteran of 39 years, was the first to question the Mounties publicly, suggesting that a lack of supervision may have contributed to the disaster. He was maligned by those involved in the investigation as an "armchair quarterback." But his remarks still have resonance with the members of the public who filled letters-to-the-editor pages asking what the police have learned from Mayerthorpe and wondering how this could happen again.
Police in Spiritwood have released few details about that case, but last week admitted that they had provided an inaccurate timeline of events -- an admission that came after The Globe reported that a gap of more than one hour existed between when Constable Marc Bourdages, 26, and Constable Robin Cameron, 29, were shot and when an ambulance was called.
Details had been similarly scarce in the Mayerthorpe case. Early in that investigation, the RCMP applied to seal documents associated with search warrants. The request was granted, but was overturned after an application by the CBC and Edmonton Journal. Those documents cast suspicions on Mr. Roszko's mother, his aunt and a friend. There was also a suggestion that Mr. Roszko may have had help.
When The Globe requested other documents connected to that investigation, many were not released and those that were had been heavily censored.
Nobody has been charged in the Mayerthorpe case. The criminal investigation hasn't wrapped up. A provincial fatality inquiry has been promised, but not set. Ottawa is still completing its workplace-safety investigation, but no charges will be laid.
Corporal Wayne Oakes, an Alberta RCMP spokesman, said a promised public inquiry, which can begin only after the criminal investigation concludes, will go a long way in yielding answers about Mayerthorpe.
He brushed off suggestions that the public was growing frustrated by the length of the investigation and the lack of details surrounding the killings. Only the news media have grown impatient, he said.
Some family members of the slain officers have said they are content to wait, as long as the final report is complete.
One retired Mountie, who asked not to be identified, said the policing culture in Canada is different than it is in the United States, where information about investigations routinely makes headlines as the guidelines around free speech are applied more liberally.
"In Canada, we do not have the same rules and we can keep things under wraps with the caveat of an ongoing investigation and not wanting it jeopardized by news leaks," said the source, who has extensive knowledge of police operations here and abroad.
"I doubt whether you will hear anything [about Spiritwood] before the trial, at which time it will come out."
He added that the Mayerthorpe investigation has taken an extraordinarily long time to conclude. "I hope that, with the delay, there will be some startling new information coming out."
Prof. Pitt, the former Mountie turned criminologist, said it's important that the RCMP "evolve itself into the 21st century where the media and people aren't enemies" and take a more up-to-date approach to public disclosure.
He said the change is necessary not only for public confidence, but also for the future of the force, which is increasingly losing experienced members to retirement and attrition. "There are a lot of inexperienced members out there right now," he said. "If there are problems with training or procedures, members need to know."
In Spiritwood, a memo was issued to members of the force outlining what happened to Constables Bourdages and Cameron, a source close to the RCMP told The Globe. The officers had been trying to force a suspect to stop by ramming their cruiser into the back of his vehicle, but in the course of the pursuit, their air bags deployed, which the source said rendered them "helpless."
The two officers were shot with a rifle. One of the bullets hit Constable Cameron before entering Constable Bourdages, the source said.
The memo asked members not to talk with the media.
Sergeant Brian Jones, who has been the RCMP spokesman throughout the Spiritwood investigation, said a message was sent asking "all media requests go through me." But he would not talk about general RCMP policy regarding police chases.
Pursuit is perhaps the hottest issue in policing now. Some forces allow ramming, others don't. Some have strict policies to limit pursuits altogether because of the danger created to the suspect, the officers and the public.
RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli has vowed that the national police force will learn lessons from the deaths of the young Mounties.
"After every incident, after every investigation, after every tragedy, like what we've seen here, we will look at it, we examine and we try to learn," he told reporters this week before the regimental funeral of Constable Bourdages in Regina.
However, Mr. Zaccardelli added that while the force tries to prepare for every eventuality, it's an impossible feat and the job is inherently dangerous. "We always know that there is the unpredictable out there. . . . There is the randomness of events that come together, that you try to prepare for but you know deep down that there are some situations that you can never be totally ready for," he said.
But for some, shedding some tears and then saying it's a dangerous job is not sufficient. An independent inquiry is needed, said another retired Mountie, who asked not to be named.
"Given the escalating number of deaths and the non-responsiveness of the RCMP, the public has a vested interest in knowing all the facts and contributing to change that might have a positive impact," the ex-Mountie said. "The current practice of allowing the RCMP to investigate themselves in these cases and no significant formal inquiries on a timely basis needs to cease. It is just not good enough."
At a time when front-line Mounties are being wounded and killed while on duty, two officers -- including one who came under fire himself -- say the force is "outgunned" by the bad guys.
"They've got the big guns and they're not afraid to use them," said Const. Rip Mills. "So you go to a gunfight with a pistol and the bad guy has a rifle. What do you do with a pistol? Duck and take cover?"
It is rare for Mounties to speak publicly, but with the rash of gun attacks against them, Ontario-based Mills and Const. Pete Merrifield broke rank in a public call for better firepower. They both said the national force is outmatched by criminals and that its front-line officers need more than one trip a year to the shooting range to hone their skills.
"We've got a pistol and a shotgun. That's not going to cut it. How many more lives need to be lost before we change?" Mills asked.
Merrifield, who once came under fire by a suspect when he was working at a small detachment on the Prairies, said front-line officers are outgunned.
"It ain't getting any better and we're undergunned. We've got shitty old pump-action shotguns and pistols. If you're within 20 metres or less, a pistol is OK, but outside of that how do you face rifle fire with a pistol?"
"It's time the (Mounties) stopped giving everyone a big teddy bear hug," Merrifield said.
The constable, a former counter-terrorism agent, said every front-line officer needs more firearms training.
Right now, Mounties only go to the shooting range once a year. The Mounties' service pistol is a 9mm Smith and Wesson and each cruiser has a mounted pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.
The Mounties couldn't recall a time like this. On July 21, a teenager opened fire on five RCMP officers on the Hobbema reserve. The youth has been charged with five counts of attempted murder.
Police seized a rifle from the teen.
Cpl. Al Fraser said officers have been warned about coming under fire on any given day.
"It seems, regrettably, that the frequency of these kinds of events (is) becoming more commonplace, though I hope they're not normalized," he said.
"In the past, you might have heard people say they were on a routine call. Today we have no routine calls," the corporal said.
On July 7, constables Robin Cameron and Marc Bourdages were killed near Spiritwood, Sask. Curtis Dagenais, the suspect, is also accused of shooting at a third officer, Michelle Knopp.
In March 2005, four Mounties were gunned down on a routine call near Mayerthorpe, Alta. In that incident, constables Anthony Gordon, Leo Johnston, Brock Myrol and Peter Schiemann lost their lives to a better-armed criminal, James Roszko, who was packing several weapons, including a high-powered rifle.