RCMP woes create a challenge

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson began his new job this month by outlining a staggering range of deeply seated problems that he must fix. The RCMP is nothing like the revered force it used to be, owing to a series of missteps and scandals.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson began his new job this month by outlining a staggering range of deeply seated problems that he must fix.

The RCMP is nothing like the revered force it used to be, owing to a series of missteps and scandals.

They include rampant institutional sexism; the Mayerthorpe massacre; the Taser killing of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski; and slipshod work in tracking down mass murderer Robert Pickton.

Paulson acknowledged that the force today is only one or two scandals away from decimation.

Some officers, he averred, are reluctant to tell neighbours that they are Mounties.

His willingness to take on the huge challenge of renewing the force was obviously central to him getting the commissioner’s job.

The RCMP today is not good enough for Canada, he said bluntly. It should not be good enough for Red Deer either.

A big fear is that while the major management focus will be repairing and rebuilding the Mounties, local policing needs in Red Deer will be sidetracked.

That core threat will endure as long as the RCMP remains the city’s municipal police force.

The RCMP is ruled from Ottawa. National priorities will always take precedence over local ones. It was ever thus.

In 2002, when Canada hosted the G-8 summit, the streets of Red Deer were patrolled by a wafer-thin police presence because so many RCMP officers were in Kananaskis protecting the world’s top political leaders. A similar thing happened during the Vancouver Olympics.

Last year, when the G-8 and G-20 summits were held in Ontario, Red Deer’s top cop was pulled off local duty to help oversee operations there.

It’s a testament to the great skills of Supt. Brian Simpson that he was chosen for this task. But his duties in Ontario were not limited to the narrow time frame of the two summits. His real work came in the planning and during that time, he was not able to pay full attention to the policing needs of Red Deer.

Obviously, Simpson’s superiors in Ottawa were suitably impressed with his performance. He has now been given a permanent senior position there, and was honoured by the Governor-General for his outstanding work.

Coincidentally, while Red Deer’s top police officer was focused on national issues, the crime rate in the city was rising. According to new Maclean’s magazine rankings, Red Deer is the fourth most dangerous city in Canada for six serious crimes (homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, car theft, break and entry).

It would be reckless to imply a direct link between those two sets of facts. Crime rates have much more to do with demographic facts than the presence or absence of a single police officer.

Crime rates in Red Deer have risen primarily because we have a buoyant economy and a young population. Criminals always gravitate to places where money is easiest to come by, where pleasures of the flesh are in great demand and money is no object.

Young men here are earning enormous sums of money in the oilpatch and squandering a lot of it on booze, drugs, women and expensive motorized toys.

Police cannot alter the demographic and economic factors that are driving Red Deer’s high crime rate. Highly skilled senior officers, however, can mitigate them.

As a first principle, they must be on the job long enough to put their strategies in place and see them through. That will never be assured here as long as key policing decisions are not crafted in Red Deer City Hall.

Certainly there is a contract between the city and the RCMP outlining responsibilities. But when push comes to shove, Ottawa will always win.

That was abundantly apparent in the last economic boom after the turn of the millennium.

The city was growing quickly and crime rates were rising. Red Deer council dutifully responded to increasing voter concern by budgeting for substantial police staffing increases year on year.

But the RCMP could not or would not deliver the new police officers in the time frame the city sought.

As long as the RCMP remains the city’s police force, that core fact will not change.

Red Deer has all the assets to be attractive to police officers. The fact that so many Mounties who have served long careers in multiple detachments choose to retire here is ample evidence.

For young police officers hoping to make their mark and establish families, our city has tremendous appeal. We have excellent schools, recreational, cultural and employment opportunities for spouses.

We also have significantly lower house prices and vastly shorter commuting times to and from work than Edmonton or Calgary, which make Red Deer doubly attractive to young families.

If Red Deer had a municipal police force, officers could confidently put down roots here, knowing that they would not be suddenly uprooted to fill national priorities.

Red Deer taxpayers would appreciate that continuity as much as the police officers would.

Getting things right at the top end of the staffing chain is the most vital task for any police force — municipal, provincial or federal.

Both Calgary and Edmonton have had first-rate police chiefs in recent years who were respected by their troops as well as councillors and civic administrators.

There have also been chiefs who fell short of the mark. When that happened, the municipalities got to pull the pin when contracts expired. They didn’t have to wait for somebody in Ottawa to accede to their wishes.

Whatever the shortcomings of individual police chiefs, it is widely acknowledged by legal experts that officers in Alberta’s metro forces are superior to their RCMP counterparts from rural and municipal Alberta detachments. They are consistently better trained.

Calgary formed its own police force in 1885, when the town’s population was barely 500 people.

Edmonton created its force seven years later, with a town population in the hundreds.

Red Deer’s population stood at almost 92,000 in this year’s census and is projected to top 100,000 within four years at current growth rates.

We are mature and sophisticated enough to run our own show.

It’s an enduring vexation that Lethbridge’s respected municipal police force can consistently put more officers on the street at lower cost to taxpayers than Red Deer does with the RCMP.

Good luck to new RCMP Commissioner Paulson in sorting out the myriad challenges he has inherited.

But God speed to civic leaders in realizing that the future of policing in Red Deer can no longer be sustainably led from Ottawa.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.