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RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson speaks to the Globe and Mail editorial board Dec. 19, 2011.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Either the RCMP gets its act together, or it goes the way of the Canadian Airborne – another proud institution that squandered public trust through its own actions. So said the RCMP's new Commissioner Bob Paulson on Monday. It was a stunning acknowledgment of how far the force has fallen in the public's eyes. It was also a refreshing, even brave, frankness. Mr. Paulson, a career officer appointed commissioner just last month, showed that accountability for making the needed changes starts at the top.

The Airborne is a harsh, and useful, comparison. It was a military force implicated in the beating death of a Somali teenager in 1993, subject to a national inquiry, and then disbanded. The RCMP has been at the centre of several public inquiries – on the totally unjustified 2007 taser killing of unarmed Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski; on the wrongful terrorism accusations against Canadian citizen Maher Arar; on a 2006 pension scandal; on its role in failing to stop the Air-India terrorism bombings of 1985 that killed 331 people; and on its inability to stop serial killer Robert Pickton in B.C. As a result, says Mr. Paulson, its number-one challenge is to regain public trust.

"I've talked in private quarters about the day the Airborne was dismantled. Some day, there's going to be the removal of the Stetson, if we don't get this straight," he told The Globe's editorial board. "Maybe one or two more earth-shattering heartbreaks and I think people will be looking for a different outcome."

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Earth-shattering heartbreaks is putting it exactly right. It was a heartbreak to watch an observer's video of Mr. Dziekanski's brutal killing. It was a heartbreak to know the Mounties lied about what happened before the video became public. It was a heartbreak to the family of Lisa Dudley when she was found, alive but too late to save, four days after a 911 call to the Mounties about six gunshots. It is a heartbreak to see Catherine Galliford, a former B.C. spokeswoman for the RCMP, alleging repeated sexual harassment. Canadians care deeply about the national police force – its historic role in nation building, and the many good jobs, often unsung, it does, particularly in remote communities.

Each new incident is a heartbreak because Canadians keep waiting and hoping for improvement. Five years ago, lawyer David Brown, heading the pension-fund inquiry, said the force was "horribly broken." As 2012 approaches, and with commissioner William Elliott having come and gone, the image of a broken institution remains.

"The 'horribly broken' phrase hurts," Mr. Paulson said. One answer to regaining trust to "instill accountability from the front-line officers to the commissioner, for everything that we do." And "we have to demonstrate through actions that we've changed."

The RCMP can't afford any more heartbreaks. Canadians, even after all the disappointments, still hope the RCMP hangs on, rebuilds, wins back the lost trust. Mr. Paulson has some interesting ideas, he has buy-in from the rank-and-file, and he knows "a different approach to communications" is not enough. The proof, as Mr. Paulson says, will be in actions and accountability, not words.

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