Lesley J. Bikos, a former officer for the London police service, is a PhD candidate in sociology at Western University working on a nationwide study of Canadian police officers and the impact of police culture on their on- and off-duty lives.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP unveiled a damning report on systemic workplace harassment in the RCMP. In a one-two punch, former auditor-general Sheila Fraser also released a second federal report of her review of four harassment lawsuits from female RCMP members. Both reports call for substantial reforms to the operations of the RCMP. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale responded to the reports stating they both contained "similar serious and long-standing concerns."
While some in the public may see these reports as earth-shattering revelations about the workplace culture of Canadian police forces, their content should not surprise many of the officers who serve. The culture of policing was originally built on white, traditionally masculine, conservative norms, and is based on hyper-masculinity, loyalty and, above all, silence. There have been commissions, gender audits, independent reviews, academic studies, lawsuits, whistle-blowing memoirs, public complaints and media coverage of the ills of the police culture for decades. The internal issues of harassment, discrimination, abuse of power and corruption have been known by police administrations and government bodies in Canada for a long time. Yet, little about the culture has changed in any meaningful way. I say this from my own experiences in policing, but, much more importantly, from the 77 in-depth interviews across 23 police services I have conducted thus far in my current nationwide study on police officers' experiences of police culture.
There are differences in the operations of the RCMP from our provincial and municipal services. But, operations aside, I believe the culture is comparable. I have spoken with officers across all levels of policing, and with few exceptions, the stories of their workplace culture have been similar, albeit varying in extremes. I have heard first- and second-hand accounts of off-duty rape and various levels of workplace sexual assault/harassment by peers or supervisors. I have heard of evidence tampering, coercion of witnesses, and intimidation tactics used during internal investigations of workplace violence, harassment, and discrimination. I have heard of verbal, physical, and psychological bullying, racism, homophobia, and sexism – all within the workplace. Operationally, many officers report corruption in internal investigations and promotional practices that appear neutral, but in reality maintain the status quo. Not all the officers I've interviewed experienced these types of incidents directly, but approximately 90 per cent had at least witnessed or heard of them. In fact, the most common phrase they used to describe the culture is a high-school mentality with its cliques, bullies, and, yes, even hockey players. So, what is the real problem we need to address? The bystander.
In a culture that punishes "rats" or whistle-blowers, it is not the small percentage of bad-apple officers we need to worry about. It's the ones who cannot come forward to report the wrongdoings of peers or management that need protection, for it is these officers who can make changes. I have heard accounts of many officers who did not report the abuse against them or misconduct they witnessed, due to a fear of personal and/or professional consequences. Consequences such as reputation smearing, ostracization and a denial of accommodations, training, lateral movements and promotion – even several incidents of silence on the radio when an officer called for help. Yes, really.
I cannot give one answer to the complex question of how we change the culture. Sadly, many of the officers who I've interviewed, despite their wish for change, were pessimistic about its reality. The answer lies in a multipronged approach that will likely require a generational shift before the culture reflects public expectations. Some of the suggestions from officers themselves are: whistle-blower protection, professionalization, enhanced training, higher educational requirements, civilian oversight of promotional proceedings and internal investigations, accountability and transparency for misconduct and open communication between police ranks.
The issues in these reports are not new to police administrations and government bodies, and are far from just an RCMP problem. What has become clear to me (while acknowledging that I have not interviewed a member from every police service in Canada) is that police administrations have yet to take seriously the impact of a fractured, dysfunctional culture that damages many of its officers physically, mentally, and spiritually. Considering the recent Globe and Mail investigation on unfounded sexual-assault cases and reports of racial profiling and discrimination from minority communities, we must consider how police culture impacts public service. It is time we get serious about police oversight, operational practices and police culture for the health of our officers, and to address the declining trust in, and therefore legitimacy, of the police in Canada.