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Mountie dilemma: Could contract policing by the RCMP be on the way out in B.C.?

With a B.C. committee recommending a provincial police force and Ottawa reviewing the role of RCMP, a question now hangs over the agency on its 150th anniversary: Is this the time? Will the RCMP face real change?

On July 8, 2021, about 9 a.m., the RCMP boxed in Jared Lowndes at the Tim Hortons drive-through just off South Island Highway in Campbell River.

A police dog was sent in. Lowndes, 38, killed the dog with a knife. Shots were fired by police and Lowndes died.

Campbell River Mounties said they tried to stop Lowndes because he had an ­outstanding arrest warrant.

At the end of last year, the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which investigates police-related incidents that result in serious harm or death, announced it would file a report — it has not done so yet — with the B.C. Prosecution Service to consider charges related to the deadly shooting.

The Independent Investigation Office said it determined “that reasonable grounds exist to believe that three officers may have committed offences in relation to various use of force.”

Lowndes was Indigenous, from the Wet’suwe’ten First Nation in northwest B.C., and had connections to the Xwemalhkwu First Nation on Vancouver Island through his daughters.

His family and other critics have raised issues, including in a recent civil suit for damages against the RCMP and B.C. government, of inadequate training and supervision of police in the use of force and in de-escalation techniques when dealing with “culturally diverse” citizens.

It’s far from the first time such allegations have been levied against the RCMP.

First Nations and civil rights advocates have been calling for significant policing reform for years.

A sweeping all-party legislative committee report released last year, just nine months after Lowndes was killed, called for the RCMP to be dumped in B.C. in favour of a provincial police force.

Next door, Alberta has examined a similar idea, as have other provinces.

The federal government has a review underway as well on what will happen to so-called contract policing by the RCMP.

Not only does the Royal Canadian Mounted Police provide federal policing in areas such as organized crime, terrorism and high-level financial crime, but many provinces and municipalities “contract“ with the RCMP to provide local police services.

A question now hangs over the agency on its 150th anniversary: Is this the time? Will the RCMP face real change?

“The optimist in me is shouting loudly: ‘Yes. Now is the time,’ ” said Rob Gordon, a professor emeritus of criminology at Simon Fraser University and supporter of moving to a provincial force in B.C.

“But the realist in me has been punished many times for being optimistic, and realizes that this likely isn’t going to happen.”

This fall, the federal government plans to table a “what-we-heard” report on its discussions with provinces, municipalities and First Nations on RCMP services and how to improve them. It is also a “first step,” according to federal Public Safety Ministry officials, on considering the future of contract policing.

The current contract for RCMP policing to provinces and municipalities in Canada, including in B.C., ends in 2032.

This fall is also when the B.C. government is expected to take the first steps to police reform in response to the all-party committee report.

Policing changes in B.C. are unclear

B.C. has the largest complement of RCMP officers in Canada, about 6,800 of the nearly 20,000 officers in the force.

The province is policed by 130 RCMP detachments, including about two dozen on Vancouver Island. The RCMP also provides the province with specialized policing in areas such as a major crimes, sexual exploitation of children and highway policing.

It’s clear that transformative policing change is not easy.

There was a long, drawn-out fight in Surrey, the province’s second largest city, before the B.C. government declared recently that the transition to a municipal force to replace the RCMP, started 2½ years ago, will continue.

The B.C. government has not said whether it intends to abandon the RCMP entirely.

Recently, B.C. Premier David Eby and other premiers raised concerns about whether the federal government would continue the RCMP’s contract-policing role.

If the province needs to transition to a provincial force, there is no time to waste in getting an answer, Eby has said.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Farnworth has been more circumspect, saying moving to a provincial police force is not an idea that is on the front burner.

In response to questions, B.C. Public Safety Ministry officials say the province is planning to introduce “targeted amendments as an interim step” this fall to broader policing and public safety modernization.

What those amendments are is unclear.

The all-party committee report’s 11 recommendations include consolidating numerous police departments into regional metropolitan forces in the Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna areas, and no longer letting mayors chair police boards. And the report recommends that police should no longer be the first and only responders to people in mental health and addictions crises.

The recommendations are aimed at creating a community-based policing model — including more Indigenous-led policing — to restore trust among marginalized and racialized communities that say they face police brutality, racial profiling and over-policing.

Whatever changes are implemented this fall, the final major legislative changes for new, modernized policing and oversight are not expected for another four years, well past the next scheduled election in October 2024.

“The final phase will include the tabling of any proposed new co-developed legislation and beginning implementation, which is estimated to be introduced in 2027,” the Public Safety Ministry said in an email from public affairs officer Chris Donnelly.

More Indigenous deaths involving police

For some, changes in policing cannot come fast enough.

First Nations and human rights and public advocacy groups — including the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal — have decried the treatment of Indigenous people by police for years, including police-related incidents that result in death.

In B.C., Indigenous people accounted for 14.5 per cent of 146 police-involved deaths between 2000 and 2022, according to data compiled by the Tracking Justice group, which includes the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Carleton University.

The rate of Indigenous people in such deaths is nearly 2.5 times the proportion of Indigenous people in the population in B.C., according to Statistics Canada figures.

In addition to Lowndes’s death, critics point to other recent examples.

In February 2023, two RCMP officers were charged with manslaughter in the 2017 death of 23-year-old Dale Culver, a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations. In June, the RCMP officers involved pleaded not guilty.

In March, Farnworth announced the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team has been tapped to investigate allegations that some Prince George RCMP officers sexually abused Indigenous women from 1992 to 2004.

Terry Teegee, the regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, has said the word in his people’s language for police means “those who take us away,” referring to the forcible removal of children to residential schools.

“Ultimately, what we want is self-governance, including taking over jurisdiction for policing,” says Teegee. “Not just to assert sovereignty and self determination, but to get better policing.”

Meghan McDermott, a policy director and lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said, sadly, she does not think people are generally aware of the “really disturbing“ record of police violence in B.C., particularly against Indigenous people.

A key issue is to remove police from almost all situations in which people are having mental-health issues, removing guns and tasers from the equation, said McDermott.

After global protests against the use of excessive force by police, sparked by the killing in 2020 of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, McDermott holds out hope this is a moment that substantive police reform can take place.

But she pointed to the record of failure to change despite repeated recommendations stretching back decades, particularly for the RCMP.

The target for legislative change in B.C. — four years from now — says a lot, she said.

“I think it’s a maybe,” said McDermott on the possibility of substantial change. “I would say, ‘prove us wrong government, give us more than cosmetic change.’ ”

Police costs rising

In the discussion of police reform, cost is a key issue for municipal governments.

Policing costs are going up everywhere and take a big and, in many cases, increasing chunk of municipal budgets — up to 30 per cent, according to a Postmedia analysis of policing costs of the 20 largest municipalities in B.C.

But municipalities view the RCMP as providing a less-expensive option, with independent forces having a higher per capita cost.

From 2012 to 2021, police costs for the 20 largest cities in B.C. jumped 50 per cent, a total of $413 million. Increases ranged from a high of 78 per cent for Chilliwack and Richmond to a low of 31 per cent in Maple Ridge. All three communities are policed by the RCMP.

Of the top 10 increases, eight were for RCMP forces. Victoria was eighth and Vancouver 10th: Both have independent forces.

In Surrey, the desire to stop the transition to a municipal force and stick with the RCMP has largely been driven by cost. A council elected last fall led by Mayor Brenda Locke has estimated a $30-million or higher annual cost for a municipal force than the RCMP.

Craig Hodge, a Coquitlam city councillor and co-chairman of the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ local government RCMP contract management committee, said despite the rising police costs, there is little appetite among municipalities for major change.

The UBCM’s official position on the all-party report is that B.C. should not move to a provincial police force.

While there are some changes municipalities would like to see, including more direct governance of policing and a say in costs, they are not ready to dump the RCMP, said Hodge.

He noted the RCMP, because it is a large force, provides efficiencies, including providing already trained officers. “We as municipalities are very happy with the service that the RCMP provides,” said Hodge.

Alberta also looking at changes

At a recent premiers’ conference in Winnipeg, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, like Eby in B.C., expressed concern over the RCMP’s “unsustainable” vacancy rates and wondered whether the federal government is deliberately winding down the RCMP through attrition.

In B.C., there are some 500 vacancies and another 1,000 officers off on short- or long-term leave, accounting for a 20 per cent shortfall in RCMP positions in B.C.

Last fall, Smith directed then-justice minister Tyler Shandro and Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis to move forward on creating an Alberta force to replace the Mounties in communities that don’t already have their own officers.

But in the election this spring, Smith did not campaign on a platform to replace the RCMP. In new mandate letters delivered this week to Justice Minister Mickey Amery and Ellis, no mention is made of creating a provincial force.

Instead, Smith directs Ellis to work with communities to deliver policing options they believe are best.

Amery says the idea of a provincial force is not dead and his department will continue to consult with Albertans on where they want to go with policing.

Smith’s government has offered to provide funding to help Alberta municipalities that want to switch to an independent force. Grande Prairie, a community of 63,000 in northern Alberta, has said it wants to form a municipal force and the Alberta government has offered $9.7 million over two years to assist the transition.

Smith’s government has also expanded its sheriff services to take on a bigger role in combating rural crime, creating new positions, including two plainclothes teams that will help the RCMP with surveillance. The province announced $27.3 million for that this spring.

Doug King, a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says the idea of a provincial force only ever had minority support, and rural municipalities and First Nation communities don’t favour such a move.

He also noted the proposed provincial force was more costly and would be a headache to administer. Alberta would have to create its own recruiting, training and police command structure.

King said the resistance to dumping the RCMP also stems from the fact the force remains a national symbol, and a part of Canadian culture, something that can’t be said for any other police force in the world.

“Many, many people like the RCMP and like the idea of the RCMP. It’s a very traditional and important sense of Canada to them, and now you want to remove them?”

What the federal government ultimately intends for the RCMP is unclear.

Citing federal sources, the Toronto Star recently reported Ottawa is looking to transform the RCMP into an FBI-like federal police agency that focuses solely on national security, terrorism, financial crimes, cybercrime and organized crime.

But in responses to Postmedia questions earlier this month, officials with the federal Public Safety Ministry and the office of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino gave no indication that a decision had been made. Mendicino was recently dropped from his post in a cabinet shuffle by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In a written response, Alex Cohen, a spokesperson for the minister’s office, said that an assessment is underway and that provinces have the power to leave their RCMP contracts now.

“It’s important to note that using the RCMP under contract policing offers significant benefits to provinces and territories. Contracting the RCMP provides them with police services that are affordable, flexible and predictable,” said Cohen.

Ottawa subsidizes police services for provinces and municipalities that contract with the RCMP, a nearly $305 million contribution to B.C. in 2021. Ottawa pays 30 per cent of the cost of RCMP services for provincial policing in rural areas and specialized units. The federal contribution is 10 per cent for larger towns and cities and 30 per cent for those with a population under 5,000.

Public Safety ministry officials said the federal review launched this March is being carried out in “close collaboration” with the RCMP.

Magali Deussing, a spokesperson for the federal Public Safety Ministry, said in an email the review includes talks with provinces and territories, who themselves determine who participates.

The discussions include governance and accountability, program sustainability and cost, service delivery and policing beyond 2032, when the current contracts end, she said.

RCMP defend current policing model

The RCMP’s top leadership says it can change and is already doing so — and, critically, that it has a plan to boost recruiting and fill vacancies.

In mid-July, Postmedia interviewed Mike Duheme, who was appointed head of the RCMP in March as interim commissioner, and deputy commissioner Dwayne McDonald, who heads the RCMP in B.C.

They’ve heard the argument the RCMP should get out of contract policing and focus solely on federal policing.

But they say one of the force’s strengths is the model that provides policing at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The model is the envy of many other countries, they said.

The top officers said it allows the force to respond to the cross-jurisdictional nature of crime, whether across municipal, provincial or international boundaries — and it provides surge capacity for emergencies such as wildfires, international security incidents and riots.

On the possibility the RCMP will no longer provide contracted policing to provinces and municipalities, Duheme said: “I’m pretty sure if we weren’t facing the shortage of resources we are right now, I really question if this would be a topic of discussion.”

As for the RCMP changing, Duheme said he admitted the force has come up short in the past.

He said that two months ago, the force set up a permanent “accountability, reform and culture” unit to monitor recommendations from reviews and inquiries, including the recent scathing mass casualty inquiry in Nova Scotia, link them to other previous recommendations, track the RCMP’s planned response to them and ensure they are implemented.

“I am a firm believer that demonstrating results on this will start rebuilding trust with the community,” said Duheme.

As a start, McDonald said the RCMP’s new collective agreement, which provides competitive salaries with other police forces, is a boost to recruitment.

The force is also allowing recruits to sign agreements on where they will be posted instead of requiring them to agree to serve anywhere in Canada.

At a recent recruiting session in B.C., 123 of 126 candidates said it was a game-changer for them, said McDonald.

The RCMP is also working on reducing recruit waiting times, which have been twice as long as for municipal forces, and has beefed up its experienced-officer program. For example, experienced officers can now join the RCMP to staff specialty sections such as financial crime and homicide, while retaining seniority benefits from their previous posting and potentially their rank.

Whether this will overcome falling interest in joining the RCMP and replace the significant number of officers who retire each year is also unclear. Although the capacity at the Regina training depot has been boosted to 1,200 recruits a year, the force has not come close to pushing that number through.

It was 782 in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and 770 was forecast for 2022-2023, according to the RCMP’s union, the National Police Federation.

The B.C. government has also pointed out there is a 200-officer gap between the number of new RCMP officers being trained and those leaving the force this year and next.

‘Status quo’ not good enough

Green MLA Adam Olsen sat on the province’s all-party legislative committee that recommended creating a provincial police force in place of the RCMP.

He is a strong proponent of the recommendations and is disappointed the B.C. government has not created a permanent standing committee of the legislature to steer the change over time, one of the report’s recommendations.

He is blunt about simply maintaining the status quo.

That’s the easiest thing to do, but it’s not the right thing, said Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation on the Saanich Peninsula.

He believes change should involve the entire legislative assembly — all parties — in an effort that is going to take five to 10 years.

Said Olsen: “We’re going to have to make this a resilient systems change and we’re going to have to mature as a political jurisdiction.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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