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Only radical change will rebuild trust in the RCMP

If nothing else, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson's shockingly forthright interview with The Globe and Mail this week demonstrated his deep understanding of the vast, complex mess he has inherited.

As impressive was his willingness to talk about it openly.

For most of its existence, the RCMP has been a very male-dominated and closed organization. One that has been unwilling to recognize and address its shortcomings and that has kept its problems to itself. This institutional closed-mindedness has created the culture that has led to the demise of our once great national police force.

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That much, Bob Paulson gets.

As someone who has chronicled the rapid descent of public trust in the Mounties, I can't tell you how refreshing it was to hear a commissioner speak with such jaw-dropping candour. When he said that a litany of controversies has made some members of the force ashamed to say what they do for a living, I was flabbergasted.

Most shocking of all was his intimation that the Mounties are likely just one or two scandals away from extinction – which is why there is some urgency to his mission of returning the force to its former glory.

All of that is wonderful, of course, and certainly a positive start to the commissioner's time in what is arguably the hardest job in the country. But for now, they are only words. How he follows through on his bold promises will be the key.

The most recent scandal to dog the force is the harassment allegations that have been levelled by several current and former Mounties. The commissioner said he takes the charges seriously (good!) and that he convened an extraordinary meeting of his most senior officers to discuss how the force will be dealing with them.

Harassment, he said, stems from a misuse of power and remedying the problem means changing people's behaviour. He wasn't specific about how he intends to do that. I asked him whether female RCMP officers and the public at large can be confident that his leadership group – those mostly male officers across the country charged with dealing with this crisis – are squeaky clean themselves when it comes to harassment.

He admitted that he doesn't know for certain and agreed it would be a good idea to find out. Yes, it would be – or else he could be dealing with a colossal embarrassment of his own making right out of the gate.

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I wasn't impressed, either, when the commissioner protested the inclusion of the death of Houston, B.C., millworker Ian Bush among the list of examples of disgraceful conduct by members of the force. "I take issue with that," he said, clearly agitated. While admitting that the shooting death of Mr. Bush while in custody was a tragedy, he said the facts of the case didn't warrant the torrent of negative criticism the RCMP received over it.

I suggest the commissioner review the facts again. The officer's description of how he shot Mr. Bush in the back of the head while lying face-first on a couch with the 200-pound millworker on top of him is difficult to believe. At an inquest, the officer declined an invitation to demonstrate how the shooting occurred.

Many, including one of the world's leading forensic experts, felt the officer's description of what happened was anatomically impossible. The way the RCMP investigated the shooting was problem-filled as well.

The Bush death is a classic example of the circle-the-wagons mentality Mr. Paulson admits is a problem for the RCMP. He would be wise not to defend the force's actions in the case too loudly.

I was struck when the commissioner said he could barely breathe when considering the challenge he faces. He said he wished more people in the force felt the same way. I like that thinking.

The new commissioner does have an unnerving test before him. Nothing less than the future existence of the force rests on his shoulders. We could well be witnessing the Mounties' last stand.

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And that does require a few deep breaths, when you think about it.

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