The RCMP will refine a controversial sting operation technique known as “Mr. Big” and keep using it to obtain confessions after the Supreme Court called for new safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions and police misconduct.
The technique, contentious in legal circles, involves undercover officers who integrate suspects into a purported criminal operation in the hopes they will confess their crimes to a superior, referred to as “Mr. Big” or “the boss.”
“Mr. Big isn’t going anywhere any time soon,” Inspector Scott Sheppard, who is in charge of undercover operations at the RCMP, told The Globe and Mail after Thursday’s ruling. “It is the undercover technique that we continue to work on and refine, and that will continue to evolve as it has since we started our program in the early 1970s.”
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the Mounties “preyed” on the vulnerabilities of Nelson Hart, a poor, uneducated Newfoundland resident who was convicted of murder in 2007 for the death of his twin three-year-old daughters. The provincial court of appeal ordered new trial.
In a ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld that decision, and said the confessions obtained by RCMP undercover officers in the case cannot be used against Mr. Hart if the Crown goes ahead with a new trial.
Civil libertarians, legal experts and defence lawyers had hoped the Supreme Court would put a stop to such scenarios, stating that the threats of violence or promises of financial rewards involved lead to false confessions.
“These kinds of investigations are designed for the police to get the answers that they want,” Ottawa lawyer Leo Russomanno said.
RCMP officials said they will abide by the new guidelines in the Supreme Court ruling, including considering the age, education level and economic condition of their targets before they decide whether a Mr. Big sting is appropriate.
In addition, the RCMP will strive to ensure that investigators obtain confirmatory evidence, not just a dramatic confession. The Mounties are also expected to try to shorten the operations, with suspects and undercover officers undertaking fewer activities, and to use new technologies to record more of the interactions.
Pioneered by the RCMP, Mr. Big scenarios have been used for decades to obtain confessions from people suspected of murder, rape and other crimes. The RCMP said the technique has evolved in the decade since it was used against Mr. Hart, and that further refinements are already under way.
“We don’t take any pleasure in the fact that two young girls are deceased, and nothing we can do can bring them back,” Chief Superintendant Eric Slinn said. “However, from a practical standpoint and a legal standpoint, going forward as a law-enforcement organization … this guidance from the courts is of tremendous benefit to us.”
No such investigations are currently under way in the national police force. Still, the Mounties said the technique remains effective, even though the way suspects are led to confess to a police officer masquerading as a gang leader has been described frequently in the media.
“The reason that people fall for it is that it is based on real life,” Inspector Sheppard said. “It is based on what criminal organizations are doing at the time, and we simply mimic them.”
The RCMP insisted that, in addition to convicting criminals, these investigations can also exonerate suspects. Officials pointed to cases in which the RCMP recorded confessions, and then determined they were false.
The undercover officers involved in the operations always urge suspects to be honest, hoping to force “bad guys to tell us their secrets.”
“We do everything in our power to get people to become truthful,” Inspector Sheppard said. “You can lie to your wife, you can lie to your girlfriend, you can lie to your boss, but you don’t lie to us.”
He added that the biggest misconception about the operations is that the RCMP cares only about getting a confession.
“It’s about uncovering the truth,” Inspector Sheppard said.