As police services everywhere cope with public pressure over their use of force policies, the RCMP is reporting that just one per cent of the more than 3,000 allegations it’s received about improper use of force over the past five years turned out to be founded.
“Out of the thousands of interactions that RCMP members have with the public across the country every single day, the RCMP has found that there were 36 instances of improper use of force over the past five years,” said RCMP spokesperson Catherine Fortin in an email to CBC News.
The national police force says that while there’s no set-in-stone definition of “improper force”, it generally refers to the application of force in a way that is unnecessary, inconsistent, too frequent or too harsh, or to the use of force for an excessive amount of time. Allegations involve inappropriate use of physical controls, intermediate weapons (non-firearm weapons such as batons and tasers), police service dogs and chemical munitions.
Harsha Walia, executive director of B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that doesn’t mean Mounties aren’t using excessive force.
She called the one per cent figure “incredibly low,” adding she doesn’t think “it’s an accurate reflection about police use of force.”
While Canadians who believe they’ve been mistreated by an RCMP officer can lodge complaints with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, an outside watchdog body, Walia points out that local RCMP detachments are still responsible for re-opening such files — something she said casts doubt on the independence of the review process.
“That complaint is automatically redirected to the RCMP to investigate, so the first step of an investigation into the RCMP is actually the RCMP investigating that complaint,” she said.
“Which, of course, is absolutely inadequate and inappropriate … that data doesn’t really reveal anything. If anything, it just shows how police accountability is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Erick Laming is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto whose research looks at police use of force and its impact on Indigenous and Black communities. He said the number of legitimate reported instances of excessive force is probably low in part because people are either afraid to lodge a complaint or don’t trust the system.
“If you’re an Indigenous person up north, you put a complaint in and it is legitimate and you really feel that it’s legitimate, but it’s the few officers up there doing the investigation. It’s really difficult to have that trust, ” said Laming.
“We need these oversight agencies to have that teeth and go further.”
Definition of excessive force subjective
The new numbers come after a series of headline-grabbing allegations that have called into question the RCMP’s use of force.
The RCMP is under pressure to explain why an officer shot and killed Rodney Levi, a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick, in June. His death is now under review by an outside police watchdog agency.
And a review has been launched of the controversial arrest of Chief Allan Adam of the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta. Chief Adam alleged that he was beaten by RCMP officers and his wife was manhandled back in March when police stopped him for an expired licence plate in Fort McMurray.
Greg Brown, a professor at Carleton University and officer with the Ottawa Police Service, said that many Canadians don’t understand what police officers are legally permitted to do in the course of their jobs.
“Just because the outcome results in somebody being injured, or blood, or some kind of outcome that doesn’t look particularly pleasant to the public audience, that doesn’t mean that it’s an illegal or inappropriate use of force by the officer. “
Perceptions of police use of force are subjective, said Brown. Officers are trained on what’s called a use-of-force continuum, which is meant to give them options based on how threatening a situation is.
“Our law is a fluid sort of construct and so it is up to interpretation,” said Brown, who also worked as a police trainer.
“Often these are situations where there’s controversy, where the use of force is sort of at the margins.”
Calls for more training
In cases where a public complaint is supported, the RCMP officer involved “is provided guidance to improve their knowledge, skills and abilities as a police officer,” said Fortin.
The response to a founded complaint can include an apology by the officer involved or a superior officer, a senior member offering the officer operational guidance, additional training, procedural or policy changes or attempts to resolve the issue through discussions with complainants.
Brown said police training used to be much more physical — “I’ve had people punch me and break my nose,” he said. He said he wants to see much more robust use-of-force training in police services.
“If somebody has never been involved in a use-of-force scenario, and suddenly they’re a police officer and they’re engaged with a very violent person who’s trying to cause them harm, and the person is punching them or kicking them or using a weapon, we want to know that that officer has the skill set to address that issue professionally, ” he said.
“The kind of training that officers have been receiving over the years has been watered down … Expecting officers to use force perfectly 100 per cent of the time when they receive minimal training — for example, eight hours once a year — is very unrealistic.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has assigned Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to look into “modernizing policing structures and updating standards regarding the use of force” over the summer months.
“Having a conversation, I think, at this juncture — especially with sort of the topical nature of policing these days — is healthy in any democracy,” said Brown.
“Police take their marching orders from the legislation, from the law. There are changes available to be made to police use-of-force models and how police behave in society. The police reflect what society wants.”
A push to strengthen the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission
Both Walia and Laming suggested bolstering the legislation around the CRCC so it can make binding decisions.
“The complainant has really no recourse,” said Laming.
“There’s no binding decision that the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission can do or give to the RCMP. It’s almost like a symbolic body right now because they don’t have those teeth that you would want, that other agencies across Canada have.”
The RCMP’s improper force numbers formed part of its response to comments made by the CRCC last week.
Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the CRCC, questioned what she sees as a “general pattern of concern” about Mounties’ behaviour during wellness checks and their “command and control” training.
“The commission’s reports have repeatedly found that this ‘command and control’ approach has led to the RCMP’s unreasonable use of force in apprehending persons in crisis,” she said.
Fortin said the RCMP supports a collaborative approach when dealing with individuals experiencing symptoms of distress or addictions — but stressed that funding for mental health services is largely a provincial issue.
“Some communities across Canada have mobile mental health support and outreach services, typically in the form of a psychiatric nurse,” she said.
“Mobile mental health resources are not available in all jurisdictions, leaving RCMP members to deal with these calls otherwise unsupported in the vast majority of cases.'”