an orchard of bad apples

This week a group of dissident B.C. Mounties went public with calls for top-down changes to the RCMP.

This week a group of dissident B.C. Mounties went public with calls for top-down changes to the RCMP. Calling itself the Re-Sergeance Alliance, the group has announced its intention to drive out “an orchard of bad apples” from the force.

The group finds itself at odds with recently appointed commissioner, who came into office promising reform. In an open letter to Canadians, Bob Paulson lamented that “unacceptable behaviour … sometimes … is met with punishment that just does not cut it,” and declared that “I am trying to run a modern police force with a discipline system that was current 25 years ago.”

The badapples metaphor originated in that letter, although in Paulson’s mind they don’t amount to an orchard, but to “those few rotten apples you hear about on the news.” And sometimes we do hear. We heard about the death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant tasered to death in the Vancouver airport, and about the force’s attempts to cover the matter up by suppressing the video that blew the case open, and by discrediting the victim.

We’ve heard about the class action lawsuit in which 200 women members and former members allege a host of grievances including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and job discrimination. Here in the Yukon we heard about Raymond Silverfox, who died crawling on the floor of an RCMP cell in a pool of his own vomit, mocked by attendant police and guards over a period of 13 hours.

For white middle-class law-abiding Canadians who seldom encounter the RCMP except at check stops and traffic accidents, this must all defy belief. What have they seen except polite, competent, respectful young men and women who check their papers and send them on their way as efficiently as possible? Lost something or someone? Had your house broken into? Your car stolen? The police are on your side. They stand between you and chaos.

That’s the shiny surface of a cop’s job, and most handle it very well. But what happens when the police do the hard part of their job? How well do they interact with drunk people who argue back, who resist arrest, even resist help, who smell bad and throw up in cruisers? How do they cope with repeat offenders, with violent resistance, with people who might be armed? It would be nice to believe that the RCMP are a “special breed,” but they are not. They are ordinary humans who bring all their capacity for fear, disgust, and anger along when they sign up. The question for society is, how do we best prepare them for this toughest of jobs, and support them in doing it well?

In 1829, when British parliamentarian Sir Robert Peel shepherded in the London Metropolitan Police Act, he created one of the most important building blocks of modern liberal democracy: the civilian police force. Before that, policing in London had been handled in two ways. Merchants kept clubs or other weapons handy, and when the cry of “stop thief” went about, they grabbed their weapons and gave chase. For disturbances that couldn’t be handled in this manner, the army was called in. Among their preferred methods for crowd control were the cavalry charge, and what Napoleon described as “a whiff of grapeshot.”

Peel outlined nine principles for modern policing, which are still taught at police academies, the spirit of which is embodied in Principal Seven, which states: “The police are the public and that the public are the police.” In 1873, when Canadian prime minister John A. Macdonald created the Mounties, he had no such principles in mind. The Northwest Territory – all of Western Canada – was a rough and lawless place. The force’s first mission was to establish control of Fort Whoop-Up, a notorious whiskey-trading post near the unmaintained U.S. border. It was of necessity a military force, originally to be called the North West Mounted Rifles, and renamed Police so as not to stir up American fear and resentment.

The NWMP were the right force for the job. They did stellar work on the Prairies, and during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over time they grew into the RCMP, a modern police force in every way but one: they are still a quasi-military force, providing police “services” to a civilian population. Mike Webster, a B.C. psychologist who works with Mounties suffering from work-related problems and who knows the members behind the Re-Sergeance Alliance, has described the RCMP culture as “cultish,”“xenophobic” and “unhealthy.”

Some of the problems with Canada’s national police force are embodied in its name. Before 1829, police were always royal and mounted. They were the king’s cavalry, and they served the king’s interests. Canada needs police, but does it need a quasi-military national police force, burdened with all the unhealthy, cultish, xenophobic, us-versus-them baggage that comes with that description?

It’s time to bring Canadian policing into the 19th century. As Peel knew, a free people is policed by its own, not by the military. Culling out the bad apples isn’t going to do the job. If you have a whole orchard of rotten fruit, it’s not the apples’ fault. You’re running your orchard all wrong.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C/.Yukon in 2010 and 2002.