Invest in police, not prisons

NationalPost.com – opinion
Apr. 4, 2011.   Colin Kenny

The RCMP isn’t just a showpiece institution -its health is vital to Canada’s security. So as Commissioner William Elliott’s stormy tenure sputters to an end, we need to look at what needs to be done to resuscitate both the reputation and the effectiveness of Canada’s national police force.

Two years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose Mr. Elliott, a long-time public servant, to reform the RCMP. Yet no progress has been made. It is a big mistake to blame all that on Mr. Elliott; the trail of neglect leads to the Prime Minister.

It’s not just that Mr. Harper didn’t choose the right person for the commissioner’s job. It’s also that he didn’t give Mr. Elliott what he needed to get the job done.

If the RCMP and its officers don’t have the time, resources and training to perform in a reasonable, nonstressed way, Canadians can expect more of the ugly incidents that have marred the service’s image over the past decade. They can also expect more crime on the streets, particularly gang activity among young people.

The key to an RCMP turnaround is respect, on the part of officers for the law and the public, as well as for fellow officers up and down the line of command. Various reports have detailed the deterioration of respect within the RCMP. Unfortunately, Mr. Elliott showed little regard for his own senior officers, succumbing to temper tantrums when they dared to stand up to him.

But the Commissioner is only part of the problem. Finances are another. The RCMP simply can’t do its job within its current budget. David McAusland, Chair of the RCMP Reform Implementation Council, has issued five reports calling on the government to make significant new financial investments to stop officer burnout and improve both morale and performance. If the RCMP is to do all the jobs that Parliament expects of it, the force should have about 5,000 more officers -more than 20% more than it has now.

To date, the government’s legislative response to its own expert advice has proved extremely disappointing. Bill C-38 would still have had police officers investigating other police officers in cases of police wrong doing, instead of establishing independent civilian oversight, such as exists in Ontario. Such a system might have nipped Mr. Elliott’s behavioral problems in the bud. Also missing was any provision to give the RCMP independent employer status, enabling it to allocate its budget in the best interests of good policing without constant interference from Treasury Board.

The proposed legislation also fails to authorize the Commissioner to quickly dismiss officers who have clearly disgraced the service. Currently, most of these people have to be kept on staff at full pay for years before they can be let go.

Interestingly, some of the government’s stillborn legislation would have required more RCMP officers. But the money needed to fund an expansion of the force remains locked behind bars, a prisoner of the government’s nonsensical jail-building crusade.

How can a Prime Minister who is so philosophically committed to freedom be so fascinated with incarceration? Why does he worship the discredited American approach of locking offenders away instead of trying to reduce people’s proclivity to offend by investing more in social work, treatment for mental illness and drug addiction, as well as good, solid policing?

Perhaps what the Prime Minister wants to do is create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A second-rate RCMP will indeed lead to more crime. And then Stephen Harper will finally be proven right. We will need his jails.

* Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence.

kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca

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