RCMP at a crossroads: Who will lead the charge in an age of sophisticated crime?

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 28, 2017 10:10PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jun. 29, 2017 10:58AM EDT

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Gilles Michaud is pictured on June 5, 2017 at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan)
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Gilles Michaud is pictured on June 5, 2017 at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

Gilles Michaud knows what he’d like to do with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The police officer charged with pursuing the country’s most serious criminals has a clear vision of where he’d like to take the force – or, at least, the 4,700 or so uniformed officers he oversees as its deputy commissioner of federal policing.

Deputy Commissioner Michaud says he wants to open up new fronts to better tackle growing criminal challenges such as outlaw bikers, criminal hackers, fentanyl smugglers and money launderers. But to do that, he says, he needs people who are not like him. Decades of staffing Canada’s federal police force with career Mounties have filled the ranks with generalists who can bring broad policing skills to a range of files, he said in a frank interview with The Globe and Mail. But in an era of increasingly complex and sophisticated crime, the one-time drug cop says that the force lacks much-needed specialists – people with deep investigative skills and expertise who can dig into complicated issues.

“Do you need to be a gun-carrying police officer to do financial-crime investigations? Do you need to be a gun-carrying officer to do cybercrime investigations?” Deputy Commissioner Michaud asked rhetorically, suggesting that what the RCMP needs most right now may be accountants, computer programmers and professional managers. “We have lost some of our expertise,” he said.

It’s not a new idea, but it remains radical and resisted within Canada’s 144-year-old paramilitary force, where uniformed career cops hold sway and every one of them starts out as a constable trained at a central facility in Regina.

“We have no choice but to be specialized,” Deputy Commissioner Michaud says.

“People’s noses will be out of joint … But this is the right thing to do for the RCMP.”

There’s only one problem with Deputy Commissioner Michaud’s vision: He isn’t the person who can sign off on big-picture changes at the RCMP. Those decisions rest in the hands of the force’s commissioner, a position that’s now in transition. With the June 30 retirement of the current Commissioner, Bob Paulson, the RCMP now stands at a crossroads.

It’s anticipated that the minister in charge of the Mounties, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, will announce that he has hired a former premier and ambassador, Frank McKenna, to put together a panel to recommend a new leader. In a recent radio interview, he hinted that the appointment could shake up the force. “The change in command is an opportunity to examine all dimensions of governance and structure,” Mr. Goodale said.

With a decision is expected by the new year, the real question prompted by Commissioner Paulson’s retirement is whether a facelift or a broader overhaul is in order.

A complex set of duties

Whoever takes the reins of the RCMP will inherit a host of challenges that affect not only Deputy Commissioner Michaud’s federal-policing personnel but about 13,000 other uniformed officers, the vast majority of whom provide so-called “contract policing” services in hundreds of communities that range from tiny Arctic hamlets to major municipalities in B.C. such as Surrey, Richmond and Burnaby.

Deputy Commissioner Michaud’s staff – mostly uniformed Mounties, but also civilian employees – take on the issues that many Canadians associate with the RCMP. They’re complex federal-policing cases of national importance, but records obtained by The Globe and Mail suggest that the Mounties charged with handling them are facing new – and growing – pressures.

The number of employees assigned to the federal-policing file has been on a downward trajectory for nearly a decade, even as the RCMP’s contract-policing side has seen some marginal gains. In 2010, the RCMP employed 4,922 “regular members” in federal policing – about 250 more than it currently does. Some civilians have since been added, but not enough to make up for the shortfall. A strategic-planning report says this staffing shrinkage will likely get worse, given recruiting and retention woes. (The force is currently grappling with addressing what many describe as a misogynistic and bullying culture; as well, pay packages offered by large municipal forces have started to dwarf those offered by the Mounties, luring away employees.)

During the same period, the much larger ranks of uniformed Mounties working within the contract-policing side of the force grew from 12,807 regular members to 13,608 – an increase of about 6 per cent. This branch also saw much more sizable increases in civilian support.

Fewer Mounties working federal-policing cases means more criminal-investigation blind spots for Canada, but the force won’t speak to where it might be going dark. Yet a perusal of some public statistics can yield some clues.

The RCMP’s federal-policing detectives can play a unique police role in laying charges under federal statutes such as the Bankruptcy Act and the Excise Act, which exist to punish fraudsters and smugglers. Yet charges laid under these acts have been plummeting sharply for most of the past decade, according to Statscan data. What this means is that the Mounties may have bigger fish to fry, and no one else is in a position to pick up the slack.

Staffing crunches and complex crime files also inevitably lead the RCMP to “internal reallocations” – an invisible, but now ingrained, habit of depleting some investigative bureaus to feed others. Access to Information documents obtained by The Globe put some of these practices in sharper focus.

White-collar crime investigations – conducted in part by RCMP-led entities known as Integrated Market Enforcement Teams (IMETs), which were launched with much hoopla in the mid-2000s – appear to have been frequently understaffed. When the IMETs started, the Department of Justice was so confident in the concept that it earmarked a fund to support the team’s eventual prosecutions. Over the years, the allocated sums set aside added up to a possible pool of $19-million for prosecutors. But only $500,000 appears to have been spent between 2005 and 2017. One possible explanation for this is that the prosecutions never materialized due to inadequate staffing – another representative record shows that in 2014, the IMETs spent only two-thirds of their allotted budgets.

So what kinds of investigations did the Mounties invest in? It appears RCMP riches disproportionately accrued to so-called integrated national-security teams.

Starting in the mid-2000s, these counterterrorism squads were budgeted at a flat $10-million cost to the RCMP each a year. But with each successive year, the force spent more and more – reaching $57-million in 2014-15, the last year for which statistics are available. That amounts to nearly six times the budgeted figure. All of the extra funds came from “RCMP internal reallocation” according to a released record.

By September, 2014, federal-policing commanders were warning in an internal memo that this still wasn’t enough – not with the self-anointed Islamic State’s new overseas “caliphate” starting to inspire Canadian extremists. More resources were needed still.

And the warnings were prescient. Within weeks, two Canadian Forces soldiers were slain by extremists in two separate incidents on Parliament Hill and in Saint-Jean-sur-Richilieu, Que. For a brief time, then-prime minister Stephen Harper was forced to take cover in Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, which one of the attackers stormed before being shot dead.

After that, more than 600 RCMP federal-policing employees – a number representing more than 10 per cent of the work force – were shifted to the counterterrorism file, most of them pulled from the force’s serious-and-organized-crime division, which deals with cases such as drug and mob investigations. This massive redeployment carried a major hidden cost in terms of pre-empting or scuttling other criminal investigations, but the full extent of it has never been described.

Records do show that most of the Mounties who buttressed Alberta and Quebec counterterrorism cases lingered on those files for more than a year, whereas in Ontario and B.C., the extra RCMP ranks were pulled away within months. These provinces likely “could no longer sustain the reallocation of personnel because of pressures from non-[national security] files,” according to an RCMP internal memo.

But the terrorist threat didn’t go away. In August, 2016, near London, Ont., a 23-year-old RCMP target built a suicide bomb vest while living under a form of house arrest. It was the closest of calls – an 11th-hour tip led a SWAT team to Aaron Driver’s home, where police shot the bomb-strapped suspect dead after he exited his house for a taxi.

To the credit of the RCMP federal-policing branch, there were dozens of less-dramatic police interventions in this period. Few of them resulted in big or showy trials, but some extremists were prosecuted on pre-emptive terrorism charges, while others were deported, and still others were put under bail-like conditions.

But even Deputy Commissioner Michaud suggested that it’s not easy to get the balance right. “My nightmare is there’s one we know about and we decided not to continue to pursue,” he said. “And it comes to be that that’s the one that does something really bad.”

For the future, he says he wants to figure out ways to staff up the national-security file so that Mounties don’t have to leave their day jobs when the next crisis hits. “You divert 100 or so police officers to national security … right out of the gate, they are not as effective as they could be because it’s a new world for them.”

Having spent his 31-year career in federal-policing, Deputy Commissioner Michaud was appointed to his current role in late 2016 and he arrived with a lot of ambitions. In his interview with The Globe, he expressed hopes that his detectives on the West Coast can curb the opioid influx of Chinese-made fentanyl; that his detectives on the East Coast can bring more outlaw biker gangs to justice; and that RCMP everywhere will tackle human-trafficking networks, money launderers and criminal hackers.

It’s a long to-do list for fewer than 5,000 people, and it is one made much longer by the fact that the federal-policing branch is increasingly drawn into non-investigative work, too. Some of its Mounties have been serving as air marshals, or monitoring the Canada-U.S. border, or even trying their hand at figuring out ways to deradicalize extremists.

A growing contingent – 800 in total – also serve as glorified bodyguards who are dispatched daily to protect the Prime Minister, his family, cabinet ministers. This is the RCMP’s “protective policing” program and when international VIPs come to town, that’s more work still. Quebec will be hosting a G7 meeting in 2018, for example, an event that will require “shifting resources,” Deputy Commissioner Michaud says.

Speaking about his sprawling mandate, he described a May trip he made to Washington, where he met with some of his closest U.S. counterparts: the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Secret Service and Homeland Security Investigations. “It was four agencies that basically do the same stuff, or basically have the same mandate, all them together, as we do,” he said.

The RCMP, by contrast, maintains a broad, wide-reaching structure that encompasses many disparate functions. While specialized units are sometimes established, many are later quietly dismantled or absorbed by bigger ones.

Some ex-Mounties gripe that contract-policing has evolved into the RCMP’s real centre of gravity, given that more than two-thirds of employees are involved in that work. They complain that this locks the force into an institutional mindset that leads police investigators – and future commanders – to think of themselves as redeployable badge-wearing generalists, instead of as sedentary specialists who might spend years on files, and who may or may not wear uniforms.

“They should break [the RCMP] in half,” said John Sliter, a former Mountie who advocates hiving off the contract-policing force and creating a federal-policing agency that would operate like “FBI North.” He argues that so long as the two distinct streams exist within the same force, a more generalist mindset will prevail, especially in matters of recruitment and hiring. Cops who have walked a beat will be favoured over the types of less conventional crime specialists who Deputy Commissioner Michaud hopes to one day hire.

“Every time that the old guard kicks in at the deputy level, they say, ‘The real value of the force – the real backbone – is the [contract-policing employees]. And that’s where we get the real cops. Don’t let these civilians run the show,’ ” Mr. Sliter said.

He speaks from experience. For much of his RCMP career, he agitated to create walled-off financial-crime squads, with high numbers of civilian specialists. He says that dream was briefly realized in the early 2000s when he became first commanding officer of the IMETs. But as a new generation of commanders arrived who were more attuned to the contract-policing world, the IMETs were sidelined. The new leadership didn’t buy into the notion of specialized investigative entities that worked independently from one another, he said.

A 2013 expert-panel internal report on the RCMP IMETs found that much of their funding “appears to have been reallocated to other programs,” contrary to government policy. Meanwhile, the report found, RCMP has struggled to recruit and hire civilians with sufficient expertise to make a difference on investigations.

White-collar crimes such as money laundering are among the issues that Deputy Commissioner Michaud wants to tackle. But given the current culture of the organization, his dream of bolstering the force with investigative specialists and outside hires could meet with resistance – unless the incoming commissioner buys into his vision.

“It does require a cultural shift,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing for an organization with 140 plus years in the making.

“I know that. And we know that. But it’s a must do.”

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