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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

Admitting to a culture of bullying and a legacy of botched investigations, the Mounties' new commander says his police force faces obsolescence if it doesn't get its act together – and quickly.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says his mandate is to "clear-cut" problems that have taken root so deeply in the police culture that some Mounties are now embarrassed to tell neighbours where they work. Speaking to The Globe and Mail editorial board after a month on the job, he gave an assessment of internal dysfunction so candid that similar remarks would be almost unthinkable coming from the head of any other corporate or government entity.

Commissioner Paulson stated flatly that too many Mounties today believe that their authority entitles them to misuse power. He said his 30,000 employees need to better understand accountability and leadership – or the Mounties may be "one or two more earth-shattering heartbreaks" away from losing all credibility.

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"I tell you, one day, there is going to be the removal of the Stetson if we don't get this straight," he said, when questioned about whether public trust has been violated. "We've got to get onto this. This is urgent."

Once it would have been unthinkable for any Canadian – much less the Commissioner himself – to contemplate the dissolution of the RCMP. The force's red Serge and Stetsons have long been the iconic image of Canada, its law-and-order history harking back to the Western frontier.

Yet given how controversies have piled up – from failed terrorism probes to overuse of force and, now, sexual-harassment complaints from female officers – many police observers question whether the beleaguered Mounties should remain in their current incarnation. "We are at a pretty critical period. … I don't see the RCMP surviving," said Linda Duxbury, a Carleton University management professor.

But commanders who speak truths may actually help the RCMP endure, she said, and begin to correct a decade of drift where everyone pretended nothing was wrong. "He's showing leadership," Prof. Duxbury said of Commissioner Paulson.

While the new commander acknowledges many fundamental flaws, he says his organization is not beyond repair. "The lion's share of our members and employees, day in day out, come in and do an enormous public service," he said.

Rather, some attitude adjustments are in order. Early this month, Commissioner Paulson convened meetings with this top commanders, telling them they have to work together to ensure that internal RCMP probes of rogue cops cease to be go-nowhere investigations. He stressed that police officers are not entitled to the presumption of innocence if their conduct falls under a cloud.

"Procedural fairness is the operative term in disciplinary matters," he explained. "Not this criminal standard that officers have been applying to our detriment, frankly."

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Seeking an infusion of new blood in the middle ranks, he's looking at promoting rookie cops right out the RCMP's police academy in Saskatchewan. He hopes an "experimental troop of direct-entry recruits" could infuse new thinking into a paramilitary organization that many observers describe as hidebound.

"People would be very worked up about that," he acknowledged.

But his biggest hope is that Mounties again make the majority of their headlines for collaring mobsters, fraudsters and illegal bikers. He wants more aggressive detectives versed in tried-and-true techniques. "They need to have fangs out," he said.

A fixture at national headquarters for the past five years, the Mountie boss said nothing was more thrilling to him than heading up RCMP teams that pieced together "Cadillac" investigations. And "I've flown airplanes upside down at 200 feet, at 350 knots, " he added, referring to his time as a Canadian Forces fighter pilot before joining the Mounties in the 1980s.

Long resigned to risk, Commissioner Paulson now sees a parallel between his job and that of the 1990s Canadian generals who were forced to disband a rogue military unit to save the reputation of the rest of the soldiers.

"Like the military in post-Somalia … I've talked to some colleagues in the military and tried to understand how a leader would go about trying to set the organization straight," he said. "That's really how I marketed myself during these interviews that went on for the selection of Commissioner."

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Although he has a mandate from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do what needs to be done, Commissioner Paulson know he needs to work quickly. "The purpose is to change. I have got to be persuasive," he said. "I've got a couple of hammers and grenades I can throw. But I'm going to run out, given the kinds of change I have to do."

Mountie malaise

Canada's national police force has been garnering a reputation for its failures, not its successes, in recent years.

* Air India bombing (1984): Terrorists in Canada successfully hatched a plot to blow a commercial jet with more than 300 passengers aboard out of the sky. But despite an RCMP criminal investigation spanning two decades, only one conspirator has ever been convicted.

* Maher Arar affair (2002): This Canadian computer engineer was tortured in a Syrian jail after first being arrested in a New York airport. The RCMP was found to have circulated misleading intelligence that wrongly characterized him as an al-Qaeda member.

* The RCMP pension-fund scandal (2006): After the Mountie brass mismanaged the rank-and-file's pension funds, senior commanders were publicly accused of sidelining subordinates, perpetrating cover-ups and even parliamentary perjury.

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* The Robert Dziekanski taser death (2007): Wandering around confused and disoriented at Vancouver airport, this Polish national was tasered by four RCMP officers. His death at the scene spawned an inquiry into the force's use of conducted energy weapons.

* Sexual-harassment allegations (2011): After a well-known Mountie complained that she spent years being harassed by superiors, several other female officers came forward to allege the same and worse.

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