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RCMP officers march at a regimental funeral, in Richmond, B.C., Nov. 2, 2022. Nearly a fifth of RCMP positions in B.C. are vacant, a staffing crunch that mayors say is impacting public safety.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

New numbers from the RCMP show that it is missing nearly a fifth of its work force in British Columbia, the result of unfilled vacancies and members off on extended leave – a staffing crisis that impacts investigations and call-response times.

A recent Library of Parliament analysis, reported on by The Globe and Mail, showed that there were roughly 460 RCMP job vacancies across B.C., representing more than half the 813 empty positions across the country.

The force said it is ramping up its recruitment of new officers, but mayors and policing experts stated that the staffing crunch is hurting public safety in the province’s rural areas and 65 larger communities that the RCMP is contracted to serve.

But when asked how many more positions are left vacant by Mounties taking extended leave, the numbers indicate a deeper problem: Some 638 officers have been away for more than a month, as of Jan. 31, 2023 – representing 9.5 per cent of all Mounties in the province, which is two percentage points higher than the national average.

Spokespeople at the force’s headquarters in Ottawa said their members often experience traumatic events on the job that lead them to take time off to improve their mental health, but the RCMP does not systematically track why Mounties are taking long-term sick leave.

Data from the force show that roughly 375 Mounties a year across the country were on leaves of six months or more in 2014, with that number holding steady for two years. These leaves rose steadily until 694 members took this extended paid time off in 2021. Last year, the number spiked to 912 across Canada.

Federal Mounties and Staff Sergeant Kris Clark, a spokesperson for the force in B.C., both said in e-mailed statements that the RCMP is constantly assessing where to plug staffing holes to protect public safety, and a special team of Mounties has been created to fill temporary vacancies across the province.

A spokesperson for B.C.’s Solicitor-General and Minister of Public Safety said the province is monitoring these vacancies and working with the RCMP to ensure people are protected.

The RCMP has previously said it 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 processes 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.

Mike Morris, a former commander of the RCMP in the north of the province who then served as solicitor-general under the previous B.C. Liberal government, said the hundreds of unfilled positions have created a vicious cycle. Mr. Morris, now the provincial public safety critic, said those who are showing up to work must endure more overtime and higher caseloads – inevitably leading to more burnout and more officers going on extended leave to recover.

Sergeant Kaleigh Paddon, the wellness co-ordinator at the nascent Surrey Police Services, frequently played down any work-related stress or trauma during much of her recent 17-year stint with the B.C. RCMP, often telling herself that “there’s no crying in policing.” But, over time, she said she realized that the culture of stoicism was hurting her and her colleagues in the long run.

RCMP leadership has acknowledged the need to change the way it supports officers in the wake of critical incidents, for example, but shifting practices in such a massive organization takes time and understaffing is not helping the matter, Sgt. Paddon said.

High vacancy rates mean it is difficult for officers to cover for a colleague if they need to take off a day or a block of shifts to process trauma experienced on the job, she said.

“If I know that me taking a knee or me taking a day means that it’s an increase in workload for those hurting around me, am I going to take that day? No, you’re going to keep going,” she said.

Lisa Kitt, a clinical trauma psychologist who has seen hundreds of Mounties battling PTSD and stress in her private practice, said she helped the BC RCMP draft a proposal in December, 2020 for a new pro-active employee support unit. She said the force is improving on this front, but there is still more to be done.

Dr. Kitt, who also teaches criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said research has shown that between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of active Canadian police officers have a diagnosable mental-health injury, with Mounties at the higher end of that scale.

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