RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson visited The Globe and Mail editorial board on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. Following are some excerpts from that conversation. This interview has been condensed and edited.
I’ve never done an editorial board before so I’m a little bit nervous and excited. I’m coming up to my month anniversary taking lead of the RCMP. I have a number of challenges that I’ve spoken about publicly already.
But I also have a bit of a plan that I’m trying to roll out over time. I’m interested in sharing it with you and answering any questions you may have around it.
My agenda is trying to get the organization to focus on its core business. My recipe is a simple one – to do core policing activities, in all of the areas that we do policing, we do it well, we do it to the satisfaction of Canadians and others, and then everything else should fall into line.
Essentially, it’s the simpleton’s approach to being the Commissioner of the RCMP.
Q. With respect to the female-harassment issue, what do you identify as the core issues that need to be changed within the culture? How do you restore the public’s faith?
One is the process that I’ve announced – centralizing the process in terms of having a more immediate and meaningful oversight in terms of how these things are handled.
The second issue is the behaviours. The behaviours of the people that give rise to these complaints in the first place. That is really the heart of the challenge, I think, in terms of making meaningful changes right across the organization.
The harassment issue is a bigger, broader issue ... and it goes right to the heart of the problem with the organization’s culture. Which is how authority is misunderstood to be power in its application.
It seems to me we are weak in our leadership area. How people, leaders, come to understand their duties, their responsibilities.
Most sexual offences, go to a power issue rather than anything else. Similarly the rest of the harassment cases go to, I think, also feature that sort of misuse of power.
Two of my priorities are accountability and leadership. Those are very simple but broad areas to be improved within the organization. Leaders have to action things when things go wrong – quickly.
Q. Some internal investigations go up in smoke. Can you change that?
Where we fail is in how we oversee and manage the decisions around discipline.
One of the things I did the week before last was to have all the deputies come together for an extraordinary senior executive committee. We sat around the table a little bit larger than this and got right into it, the heart of the matter, how we were overseeing our areas of responsibility.
One of the things that’s gotten into the public domain is how, at one point I said how there is no presumption of innocence in respect of administrative disciplinary hearings.
That somehow presents me with a risk that I’m seen to be some sort of crazy person. But procedural fairness is the operative term in disciplinary matters, not this criminal standard that officers have been applying to our detriment, frankly.
Q. This was an agency that, for decades, was held up as the pinnacle of Canadian identity and accomplishment. Now it’s almost become a running farce ...
I’ve had discussions with colleagues around the sense of urgency we need to attach.
Like the military in post-Somalia. I’ve talked to some colleagues in the military there and tried to understand how a leader would go about trying to set the organization straight. That’s really how I marketed myself during these interviews that went on for the selection of commissioner.
You describe failures upon failures upon failures. This will sound inappropriate, but I’ll say I watched those somewhat from a distance until I got into the senior executive ... because my experience has been success upon success upon success. Not because of me but because of the teams I was lucky enough to be a part of.
And it was incredible. It was remarkable. When you’re able to pull together a bunch of people and deliver a really complex and “Cadillac” piece of policing, for Canadians, it’s like no other feeling in the world.
I’ve flown airplanes upside down at 200 feet, at 350 knots and that’s exciting , but it’s not near as exciting as being able to deliver one of these big cases.
Real, significant change, to use perhaps a bad metaphor, will be only attainable when you clear cut.... there has to be some removal of any stain of former sort of ethos, or culture, or value system.
I don’t think you do that overnight. But I think you can do that in the very near term if you are consistent by making things simple and clear and making sure people in the organization get it.
Q. What is the No. 1 challenge?
Public trust. I don’t think people know how urgent it is in our organization. I’ve had officers say to me when I travel that they don’t like to talk about what they do sometimes when they go to new areas, when they are with their neighbours.
“What did you do?”
Q. So they are ashamed to be with the RCMP?
Yeah. Some people are. But let me try to drag some context into this.... The lion’s share of our members and employees, day in day out, come in and do an enormous public service to Canadians.
I can’t be seen as the new leader to be running around and saying the place is falling down. I have to be persuasive in making the case to everybody, those 90 per cent of employees, and say I can’t do this by myself. So all of us got to go to those folks and we got to knock ’em on the head. ...
Without the public trust, you’re not going to be effective in your core business. If people don’t have some confidence in our ability to close investigations – market enforcement investigations, homicide, and organized crime cases – they are not going to participate.
Q. The auditor general pointed out that you had to cut a whack of money out of these investigations last year. Now you’re going to have to swing an axe again due to austerity ... is this going to impact your ability to put bad guys in jail?
One of the qualifications for the new Commissioner was doing all the things we are talking about in a climate of fiscal restraint.
Its premature to know where the axe is falling exactly – the principles we’ve applied to our deficit reduction action plan goes toward the back office. Support mechanisms.
We’ve been guided by the principle of not touching operations.
Q. Do you think police organizations are inherently change resistant and insular?
Q. So how do you work to bring change?
Well, again, you take some risks. I’m a firm believer in that you’re not going to innovate at all unless you take some risk.
I’d like to have an experimental troop of direct-entry officers, commissioned officers at the Inspector level. People would be very worked up about that. But in order to bring some different thinking. Instead of going to Depot and coming out a Constable and going to recruit field training, you go to Depot do some recruit field training and come out as an inspector and go right to command.
The purpose is to change.
I have got to be persuasive. I’ve got a couple of hammers and grenades I can throw but I’m going to run out, given the kinds of change I have to do, I will run out of hammers and axes and bombs.
Q. What is the cause of losing public trust?
Policing requires a certain amount of public trust that I think is reinforced by a number of things, including a reflective and just exercising of special authorities. When those authorities are misused or used to allow behaviours other than the public interest, I think, the general average reasonably minded Canadian says “That’s no good ...”
If you make a well intentioned mistake, people get that. But when the dark heart comes out, and you can see certain sort of a lazy intent to go around what’s right, people get off the bus.
And I think we have had some of those.
Q. Is there anything you would like to change with respect to how you prosecute crime?
Incrementally, and to a different extent, our ability to charge people has gone off the rails.
We have different pockets of precharge approval. Which I think is a problem for a number of reasons.
Police investigate. Police lay a charge – Crowns either prosecute or don’t prosecute. What I need to have happen is have officers understand the various thresholds of evidence that’s required – to form a reasonably held suspicion; to a reasonably held belief; to reasonable and probable belief; to a substantial or reasonable prospect of conviction.
If we get to a reasonable and probable grounds for belief, we’re entitled to charge people. Then the Crown would take it on and say, meh, it doesn’t meet our charge approval threshold, there is no reasonable prospect for conviction – so we’re not going to charge them.
I think those two decisions have to be separate. Because of the precharge approval process, they’ve kind of gone over to the Crown’s area excessively, and lessened the responsibility and expectations of us, the police, to hold up our end of the equation.
There’s a number of cases that are outstanding for charge consideration across Canada in the areas and jurisdictions where the precharge approval exists. I’m not pointing the finger at the Crown.
I just have a strongly held view because I came up in an era where I was accountable for my cases. I came to understand that it was very important that I had my evidence right, my facts correct, and my case unassailable. But now it’s kind of like throwing it into a big sausage factory ...
Q. What’s the plan to fix the RCMP?
I can’t do it by myself. I continue to have very direct and pointed conversations with my command staff about how we radiate out a new view to how we do our business. I think that’s important.
We practise and deliver a process for instilling accountability from the front-line officer to the Commissioner for everything that we do.
We do our core business well. We’re responsive to criticism. We’re demonstrative of our successes.
One of the guys from B.C. who worked on the [Robert]Pickton case wrote me an email. He was a guy I knew fairly well. You know, “Congratulations Bob on becoming Commissioner, here’s what you have got to fix Get out front and defend us....” He’s outraged that I’m not out there fighting and defending the organization.
What I’m saying to folks is that I’m not a salesman. We have to demonstrate through actions that we’ve changed. If we don’t do that, we will have failed.
I tell you, one day, there is going to be the removal of the Stetson if we don’t get this straight. We’ve got to get onto this. This is urgent.
Q. Is the RCMP too complex an organization?
We do a lot of things. The challenges it seems are having the right people in charge of the right piece.
When I was deputy of federal police, we were getting beat up on IMETs [Integrated Market Enforcement Teams]all the time. We don’t own the whole thing. A lot of things are getting sorted out through the regulator process through fines and agreements and so on. Some of the stuff that comes out of those decisions and meetings, or failures to solve them, end up on our plate. And they say, ‘Solve them, why can’t you guys solve them?’ We sit around waiting for people to throw us bones out of the regulatory bodies. And we’re not being police officers. When you’re a police officer, you go to the area where the crime is happening, you scan it, you see who is doing it, and you get in there. You talk to humans, you recruit sources, you do undercover operations, and you get evidence in the near term, and you bring it to court.
If you wheel up with a semi-trailer in front of the Bank of Nova Scotia building and take all their documents, you’re going to be a few years trying to sort that all out.
It’s just the wrong strategy.
Q. Do legal changes need to be made?
There probably are things that could get done, but I say before we start taking a position to go chase down new laws and approaches, let’s make sure our house is in order. Let’s try.
And we’re doing that with some degree of success. We’ve had some success in some of these foreign corruption cases, because they’re going for the heart.
They need to have fangs out. They need to be hungry. They need to be educated.
Q. You said an extraordinary thing, where you think the Stetson could be taken away. How long do you give the force to come to grips?
I don’t think I could hang a time on it. But I could say – maybe one or two more earth-shattering heartbreaks and I think people are people are going to be looking for a different outcome.
All I want people in the RCMP to understand is that it’s urgent – it’s not a PR [public relations]matter.
This interview has been condensed and edited.