Last Wednesday, a group of former and present RCMP officers blew the whistle on what they describe as corruption and cover-up at the very top levels of Canada’s national police force.
Addressing the Commons Current Accounts committee, they have accused former chief Giuliano Zaccardelli and other senior officials of robbing the police pension fund of millions, which they claim was channeled into the force’s budget.
Zaccardelli rejects the accusation.
The story of the missing pension funds has been percolating for five years, while top Mountie brass suppressed it.
But when the lid was opened it all bubbled over quite suddenly.
By Thursday we had heard that Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day may have been sitting on this scandal for more than a year.
By Friday the Globe and Mail was reporting that at least some of those raising the stink about the pension funds had an agenda of their own.
They were advocates for an RCMP union, something the law currently forbids.
RCMP officers answer to a quasi-military power structure that gives orders and expects to be obeyed. Loyalty is demanded, and everybody knows their exact place in the hierarchy.
In short, individual Mounties have little protection against exploitation by the system.
A union would help to protect them from abuses, the alleged theft of their pension funds being only the most obvious.
Policing is dangerous work, and unions help to protect workers from on-the-job risks.
It’s very common for the cop on the beat to believe that his or her job would be safer under a tougher criminal code, with stronger police powers — a union can help them to pursue these goals.
The trouble is, the interests of the police are not necessarily identical with the interests of citizens.
In January 2000, the Toronto city council passed a motion banning the police union’s controversial political campaign, Operation True Blue.
It was one move in a protracted struggle between elected officials and the Toronto Police Association.
Operation True Blue was a telemarketing campaign whose purpose was to raise funds for the TPA’s political campaigns.
The TPA has been a very effective machine, once mobilizing 300 constables on short notice to canvass door-to-door for the law-and-order Harris Conservatives.
The TPA under its tough-guy leader Constable Craig Brommel made no secret of plans to throw its weight against politicians who were in any way critical of police actions. City councillors and police board members complained of harassment and intimidation by union officials, and even the deputy chief of police accused Brommel of trying to blackmail him into leaving the force.
Operation True Blue didn’t smell very good on the intake end either.
The TPA was peddling three different coloured windshield stickers, at three different prices.
No promises were made, of course, but the public clearly understood possession of a gold sticker to be a positive factor in the event of a roadside encounter with the police.
The expression “get out of jail free card” was tossed around, though perhaps a little optimistically.
The scheme had its origins in (guess where) the United States, and the TPA was encouraged in its campaign by motivational speakers from that most media-sensitive police force, the Los Angeles Police Department.
Like the LAPD, the Toronto police had reasons to be concerned about too much media or public scrutiny.
Politicians and reporters in Toronto were prying into accusations of brutality, racism, frivolous strip-searches, and prisoner abuse.
When the Toronto Police Service Board banned Operation True Blue, the union threatened to sue.
Police chief David Boothby ordered Brommel and other union leaders to obey the ban or face discipline.
The union’s response: “It’s war.”
After more than a week of this brinkmanship, into which Mayor Mel Lastman strode with both large feet, the TPA did back down, gracelessly and without apology.
By this time the affair had gone a long way to help undermine public confidence in the police.
The ordinary cop on the streets was tarred with Brommel’s bullying — in large part because he never lost support of the union rank and file.
Collective bargaining would certainly change the nature of the RCMP.
It would open up what is now a hierarchical, militaristic organization and help to prevent cover-ups and abuses.
But as citizens let’s remember that what’s good for the police is not always good for us.
It’s not impossible to write a charter that offers the regular working cop protection from the bosses and still protects the citizenry against abuses by the union.
An RCMP union must never be allowed to dabble in politics, and there have to be strict limitations on the way it raises funds.
Operation True Blue was a good lesson in what can happen when you mix politics, police, and union powers.
Let’s not see how it plays out on a national scale.