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RCMP Commissioner William Elliott photograph during an interview at RCMP Headquarter in Ottawa, November 04, 2010.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

It is time to fix the horribly broken RCMP before it becomes known as horribly and permanently broken. At last, after three years as Commissioner, William Elliott, the first civilian to lead the 27,000-member national police force, has publicly endorsed the need for a structural overhaul, as recommended in 2007 by a task force whose head, lawyer David Brown, attached to it that wonderfully descriptive phrase, "horribly broken." (The phrase is even more felicitous than "institutionally sick," which a separate probe called the RCMP in 2004.) The Canadian government has surely seen enough of that brokenness to lose any reservations it may have had about the need for dramatic change. It should get on with the job.

The overhaul - including a civilian board of management - is not a panacea for a complex force whose responsibilities include local and provincial policing, protecting Canadians from terrorism and organized crime, and training police in Haiti and elsewhere. Paul Kennedy, a former independent complaints commissioner, believes the central problem is that the force is pulled in too many directions at once. "You have an organization that is scattered: too many tasks, too many mandates, too many taskmasters." He would like to see it rid of most or all of its provincial and local policing duties. But most Canadians still respect the local policing work of the Mounties; for now, such a change is a political non-starter.

The creation of a civilian board would, however, jolt the RCMP out of its institutional arrogance, which stems perhaps from its paramilitary style of organization that has changed only in fits and starts since its origins in 1873. Governance expert Gilles Paquet, in a report done for Mr. Brown's task force, spoke of a "perverted esprit de corps at the top (loyalty to the organization first and foremost), and … a law of silence in the middle ranks for those who had any aspiration to promotions." All this bred cynicism through the force - and disrespect outside it.

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The management board's appointees should be of the highest calibre, and include a provincial role in nominating them (as is done for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board); the prime minister should have the prerogative to nominate the chairman, but that nomination should be publicly screened by a parliamentary committee.

The national police force is a public trust in which the public and even the force's members no longer believe, as they once did. The litany of mistakes and misdeeds, from Air India to the fatal tasering of a Polish immigrant to the Arar torture affair, from a pension scandal to a mid-election announcement of a probe into a Liberal cabinet minister's office that turned the course that election, is by now so familiar it hardly needs mentioning. The most recent embarrassment was a mass complaint about Commissioner Elliott sent by senior members of the RCMP to the Prime Minister's Office. Government needs to protect and restore this national trust.

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