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The RCMP in British Columbia are struggling with hundreds of job vacancies in their ranks that are impacting investigations and delaying call response times, both in rural areas and in the 65 larger communities the force is responsible for policing.

A Library of Parliament report released at the end of January shows that the RCMP had 813 empty positions across the country in June, 2022 – 460 of them in B.C. The force confirmed last week that the overall totals remain roughly the same.

The numbers don’t include the “soft” vacancies caused when Mounties take extended leave for family or health reasons. The force’s Ottawa headquarters could not provide the number of RCMP officers in B.C. on that type of leave but said in a statement that as of the end of January there were 905 Mounties on off-duty sick leave of more than six months, nationwide. That is roughly 6.5 per cent of the number of RCMP officers contracted to police municipalities, and rural parts of provinces and territories.

The RCMP said they had to contend with the impact of the pandemic, which slowed the training of new Mounties to replace retiring ones. The force added that it has overhauled its application process and is ramping up training of new recruits to alleviate the staffing crunch. It also noted a recent commitment from B.C. Premier David Eby to add 277 more Mounties over the next three years.

But critics say the vacancies mean Mounties are significantly delayed in responding to nonviolent 911 calls in some cities, forcing officers on shift to react to emergencies rather than investigate more complex cases, such as those involving organized crime.

Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas said he is hopeful public safety in his mid-sized city in the heart of B.C.’s Okanagan wine and tourist region is trending in the right direction. The local RCMP detachment’s vacancy rate recently improved to 9 per cent, from 13 per cent last year.

Mr. Dyas said the lack of Mounties contributed to Kelowna’s rate of serious crimes ranking second highest in the country in 2021, after Lethbridge, Alta.

“That’s not the type of thing I want to hear as a mayor,” he said. “Our citizens basically needed to feel safer in our community.”

In Prince George, about a fifth of the RCMP detachment’s more than 100 Mounties are on leave, many for mental-health reasons, according to a report from a team led by Simon Fraser University criminologist Curt Griffiths, which was released in December to the local city council.

“Although the detachment does have support from the community, this may be at risk if crime rates keep increasing and the community feels that the detachment is not engaged with residents in a collective effort to address the challenges facing the city,” Mr. Griffiths and his team wrote. “All communities have a ‘tipping point’ where residents feel unsafe and are concerned about the ability of the police to keep them safe.”

Prince George Mayor Simon Yu said he and his council are aware that “it’s not a good situation.” Still, he said, he has been in constant contact with the leader of the detachment, as well as provincial Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, about the staffing challenges. Mr. Yu said he believes the current efforts to ramp up recruitment of new Mounties will help.

“Hopefully in a year or two we can reverse the situation,” he said.

In the meantime, his council has approved a budget that will pay the RCMP to hire four more Mounties and two more civilian employees, which is still well short of the 19 officers and 10 employees Mr. Griffiths’ report said the detachment needed.

Mike Morris, a former Mountie who led the RCMP in the north of the province, and who served as solicitor-general under the previous B.C. Liberal government, said 40 to 50 cases a year is an acceptable workload for the average Mountie serving one of the dozens of cities in the province that contract the RCMP for policing. But in many cities, officers had average caseloads of more than 100, according to a 2021 annual report the force produced for the province in December, 2022.

At the detachment in Prince George, officers averaged 120 cases a year, and in Penticton they averaged 155. In Kamloops and Kelowna, the averages were just over 90.

“That’s when mistakes can be made on major investigations, or even minor ones, that could have some effect on charge approval,” said Mr. Morris, who is now the B.C. Liberal Party’s critic for public safety.

Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, the union that represents about 20,000 front-line Mounties, said about 11,500 people have applied to join the RCMP during the past year. But he said the force will need to ramp up recruiting to draw the 16,000 or more applicants required over the next two or three years to meet its staffing demands.

“We’re getting there and none of this happens overnight,” he said.

Dawn Roberts, the civilian head of communications for the RCMP in B.C., said the province usually gets about 300 of the 1,000 or so new Mounties that graduate from the Depot, the RCMP academy in Regina, each year. To aid in recruitment, the force has reduced the time it takes for aspiring officers to finish their application process to less than a year.

The force is also working with a market research company to improve its methods of attracting potential candidates, she said. Many who apply have parents or grandparents who were police officers, or family members who are firefighters, paramedics, doctors or nurses. The RCMP are also rehiring former Mounties, and they are hiring police who want to transfer from other departments.

Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, said the Mounties have a reputational challenge to overcome, because they have been trying and, failing, to change their institutional culture for years. Meanwhile, he said, persistent understaffing has resulted in the paramilitary force not being able to police cities or tackle the higher-level work of investigating gun crime or money laundering.

“If they’re not doing contract policing, they’re definitely not doing some of these higher-priority issues,” Dr. Leuprecht said. “It’s constantly cannibalizing its national and federal obligations.”

Mr. Farnworth, the B.C. Solicitor-General, declined a request for an interview. His ministry did not respond to questions about whether cities are complaining about RCMP vacancies, how the vacancies are affecting public safety in the province and how the ministry is working to solve to the problem.

With a report from Tom Cardoso

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