Wayne Ryan writes this article as a retired 20 year veteran of the RCMP. He is neither a spokesperson nor an apologist for the Force or its Members. All of the opinions expressed are my own and simply provide some of his personal thoughts and views about the RCMP, the Media and Policing in general.
Surrey - September 21, 2012 - I’m writing this as a retired 20 year veteran of the RCMP. I am neither a spokesperson nor an apologist for the Force or its Members. All of the opinions expressed are my own and simply provide some of my personal thoughts and views about the RCMP, the Media and Policing in general.
I suppose this was prompted by the fact that, in spite of the literally hundreds of thousands of positive and successful police/public contacts in any given year, the vast amount of media coverage deals with the relatively few verified complaints of police misconduct or failure.
It is not my intention to minimize or downplay police mis-conduct but perhaps I am trying to present a more balanced or alternative view. At least that is what I am hoping for.
The RCMP’s goal, when hiring, is to get the very best that society offers. In fact, that is not totally possible.
Firstly, they can only hire from the candidates who ‘want’ to be police officers and one has to assume that many excellent candidates are not interested in such a career. After all, the pay is not great when considering the responsibilities, the liabilities, the consequences of making a mistake, the conditions and hours of work and recently, the barrage of negative media coverage which seemingly tends to paint the Force and ALL Members in a less than flattering light.
Secondly, they must hire in accordance with Federal guidelines which make it mandatory to recruit based on factors like gender, language, race, culture & education. Anytime you set targeted hiring guidelines you move from hiring the very best and qualified candidate to hiring the very best and qualified ‘available’ candidate and there is a difference. I believe that an organization fulfills it’s obligation to equality hiring by simply making it clear that ‘everyone’ is invited and encouraged to apply and that attempting to hire in order to fulfill a particular demographic is counter productive.
One of the reasons I believe Commissioner Paulson fought so hard to get changes to the RCMP Act was so that he and the Force would have the authority to fire those members of the Force that were clearly unsuited to remain as police officers.
A ‘bad’ officer is a huge detriment to any police force and their behavior unfairly taints every police officer in the Country. Up until now, the Force had few tools available if they wished to terminate an officer. This led to the media and the public being highly critical of what they must have seen as an unwillingness to fire someone, regardless of how outrageous the behavior.
Naturally this authority must be handled carefully and every Member should be entitled to due process, however if a Member’s behavior is found to have occurred and warrants termination, then it should be done firmly and quickly. Hopefully this new legislation allows that.
The Human Factor
First and foremost, all police forces are composed of human beings, and as such, it is simply a fact that in spite of best efforts, there will be human error. Some of these errors will be in judgment, some in behavior.
Police officers have all the same problems, issues, strengths & weaknesses as the general public. They are not immune to family or financial problems, substance abuse, mental and physical health issues or any of the myriad of issues that any other human being may deal with.
In truth, the very nature of police work can have a high human cost and it is paid by the individual officer. It’s almost impossible to be an operational police officer and not become somewhat desensitized. How can you spend a shift dealing with a seriously abused child and then show the necessary sensitivity and empathy to a spouse who has had an argument with a co-worker or a child who has lost their homework or a citizen who has had their bicycle stolen. Intellectually you may realize that the situation is important to them but how do you make the emotional transition?
This may be interpreted as a lack of caring and can cause resentment or anger and becomes yet another factor that can affect an officer and which can change from one day to the next. In a given shift, an officer may be required to notify a family that their son or daughter has been killed by a drunk driver.
Handled properly, this takes the compassion and empathy of a Priest or trained counselor. An hour later that same officer may have to arrest an impaired driver who is abusive and un-co-operative and he/she MUST find a way to compartmentalize those two, very different duties and the very different emotional responses. Later, in the same shift, the officer may have to intervene in a bar fight. Handled properly this takes physical courage and a strong ‘take control’ approach. Even later, they may have to handle a dispute between two neighbors. Handled properly may require the mediation skills of a lawyer or judge. Counselor, enforcer and mediator… all in one short shift. Can any one individual have ALL the skills that may be required.
I mean, you may well have an officer who is strong, courageous and take charge but who struggles with the sensitivity part. Conversely, you may have an officer who is sensitive and empathetic but lacks the ability to command or take charge of a critical situation. This might work except for the fact that police officers don’t get to pick and choose their assignments and have to adapt to each call as best they can. Can any human being do this over and over and get it right every time? I sure couldn’t, but most of the officers I ever knew and worked with did it as well as anyone could have.
Expectations vs Performance vs Reality
It’s hard to describe police work to someone who has never done it. It’s an incredibly difficult job to do well.
Officers are required to place themselves into conflict situations that most people avoid. We ask them to have the physical abilities of a young person and the wisdom of a senior, to be patient and understanding , courageous, honest and selfless, sensitive but strong… just to mention a few of the desired characteristics.
In fact, many of the public’s expectations of and for a police officer come from the hundreds of TV police shows that have been aired over the years where officers have all of the above noted qualities, where they can arrest multiple suspects with a few deft moves, shoot to wound, never make a mistake and always solve the crime.
It makes for great TV but places an impossible expectation on the officers doing the real job in the real world. In almost every case, when expectations exceed the ability to perform, there will be disappointment. Much is made of the fact that officers are ‘trained’ to handle all of the situations they may encounter. Seriously? How do you train someone to ‘handle’ seeing a child with a dozen cigarette burns on their body? How do you train someone to ‘handle’ picking up body parts at a crime or accident scene?
Consider for a moment what we as a society do when there is a mass shooting at a college or university. We rush counselors in to manage the grief and trauma of the witness’s and who would disagree with that. Then consider that many of the police officers who have had to attend that same scene may be about the same age or even younger than many of those college students. There simply is no ‘training’ for this sort of thing. We like to believe that a police officer is ‘trained’ in martial arts or self defense to a degree that allows him or her to make an arrest using minimal force and causing no injury to the suspect. Really?
Ask a martial arts expert one day how many years of extensive training it would take to do that. Most officers may receive approx six months of training, a small portion of it devoted to self defense. There is nothing pretty about a physical altercation between two or more adults and there is no way to make it look the way they do on TV.
The same thing applies to a Robert Pickton style investigation. This type of massive investigation is quite rare and when one does occur there is much ‘on the job’ learning and there are bound to be some procedural errors. Like other organizations, police try to learn from mistakes and success, in short, from experience. There is no inate, God given talent bestowed upon a police officer that gives them the power or ability to make the right decision in any situation regardless of circumstances or experience.
The main difference is the public scrutiny and armchair quarterbacking that almost always occurs in a police incident or investigation. If you were to offer a University course on policing and cover all aspects of policing, a four year program would not be unrealistic… but we give a 25 year old six months to a year of training and then expect him/her to handle anything that may occur in a job where anything can and does occur. And even if society could afford 4 year training programs for officers, you still wouldn’t be able to ‘train’ an officer to deal with many of the things noted above. I’m retired from police work and still can’t forget some of the things I’ve seen and done … and probably never will.
The Medical Factor
I wonder if any one factor has so undermined the ability of an organization to manage employees as what’s commonly referred to as ‘Stress Leave’.
It has gotten to the point that if a supervisor does admonish or discipline an employee, no matter how warranted, that employee may well go on almost indefinite leave by claiming that their work environment is too stressful. Perhaps the new catch word is toxic.
Now, a supervisor may be tempted to overlook certain deficiencies or behavior in an employee rather than risk losing them for several months or even years and that has serious, long term negative effects on any organization. I don’t think anyone is unsympathetic to an officer who has genuinely gone through an extraordinarily traumatic experience - work, health or family wise, but there are many more who have no specific incident or cause but who simply feel that their job ‘stresses’ them out.
I don’t deny that police work, like many other occupations, can be stressful and certainly not everyone is emotionally or physically suited to the job. That doesn’t in any way make that person inferior or flawed, they just may not be suited to police work. When this occurs, is it not for their own benefit as well as the organization’s, to have that quickly determined so that both can move on.
From both an administrative and operational view, how long can or should an employee be absent from work at full salary before they are deemed unfit or unsuitable for duty? It makes it almost impossible to manage resources, it places an unfair burden or stress on other officers and it cost’s the tax payer an enormous amount in wages as well as medical & psychological services.
I don’t know how many times I have heard that the ‘culture’ of the RCMP has to change. What nobody has been able to properly explain to me yet is ‘what is the RCMP culture’ as opposed to a ‘general police culture’ It’s been said that the RCMP culture is too ‘military’ in nature.
In truth, that has not been my experience. I will say though that there are many situations in police work where it would be inappropriate to call a meeting, consider everyone’s opinion, arrive at a consensus, form a committee and then put an action plan into place. Sometimes an order has to be followed immediately and to the letter or the consequences can be grave. Is that being too ‘military’? Because the safety of fellow officers and the public often depend upon the actions and decisions made by an officer, demands and expectations from both peers and supervisors can be quite high, mistakes bluntly pointed out and debriefings critical and often harsh by some standards.
I will admit that this can be very difficult if you are thin skinned or sensitive to criticism, but when the stakes are high and the effects of an error so major, I’m not so sure there is room for a different approach. Some of the best boss’s that I ever worked for were tough, no nonsense supervisors who told it the way it was and left you with no doubt about where you stood with them. Is it possible that some officers take exception to such criticism, believe it is directed at them because of personality, gender, race, culture or religion? I suspect that some have and will continue to do so.
Does that mean that the Force and the public would be better served by a warmer, fuzzier approach? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Thankfully I don’t have to make that call.
Recently there was a public exchange of correspondence between a Constable, a Staff Sergeant and the Commissioner. While everyone else was questioning the ‘style’ of the Commissioner’s response, I viewed it differently. I wondered what would have happened if an entry level or mid manager level employee at say, Esso Oil, had publicly challenged or criticized their CEO.
Would there have been a response to analyze or would they simply have been fired? I wondered what would have happened if a Private or a Staff Sergeant in the Military had done the same thing to the Commanding General? Commissioner Paulson has publicly stated time and again that the vast majority of RCMP Members provide a professional service and that his goal is to get rid of the ones who do not.
This requires significant change and like any organization, there will be those who resist it and some who may even have a vested interest in not changing. I think the Commissioners restraint in not immediately disciplining these two Members showed tremendous patience and tolerance. Maybe even too much if you accept that mid level managers MUST ‘buy in’ to a policy of change even if they disagree with it. I think it is the same with many organizations, you can have meetings, disagreements, discussions and different opinions but at the end of the day, when the final decision is made by the General, CEO, Commissioner or Owner, management needs to show a unified front and either get on board or disembark.
Much has been said about police investigating police and how it should not be allowed due to the conflict of interest. Frankly, I agree, but perhaps not for the same reason as many of the critics.
I have personally done several ‘internal’ investigations and seen many others. In almost every case the police are as hard if not harder on their own. It’s difficult for one police officer to con another and in my experience, no police officer wants a bad apple on the Force.
The bad, criminal or unprofessional behavior of another officer reflects badly on the entire Force and every officer feels that very keenly. No, the reason I don’t agree with it is all about ‘perception.’ When police investigate police there is only one outcome that will not result in calls of cover up or bias and that is a finding of guilt and the laying of charges. Any other finding, regardless of the facts, will be called a cover up.
One of the main critics of police investigating police is the BC Civil Liberties organization. I find it beyond hypocritical that they take this position when they are members of the legal society which has the largest conflict of interest on earth. If a lawyer misbehaves, they are investigated & disciplined by other lawyers (Law Society). If they are criminally charged, they are prosecuted by a lawyer & judged by a lawyer. If they appeal, their case is reviewed by lawyers right up to and including the Supreme Court which is comprised of lawyers. I’ve often wondered if they feel that lawyers have so much higher moral and ethical standards and are therefore more capable of policing themselves? In any event, I think that most police officers welcome an external investigative organization as it removes any hint or perception, however unfounded, of undue or improper bias.
I suppose one of the problems with the term Sexual Harassment is that nobody really knows what it means or, perhaps more accurately, everyone has their own idea of what it means.
When I think of sexual harassment it involves a supervisor using their position of authority to reward or punish an employee based on sexual co-operation. It might also mean supervisors or co-workers who constantly and consistently make the workplace uncomfortable for an employee with sexually based comments or actions. Those are just my own thoughts about the matter but I know there are others.
I have, over the years, seen and heard many things that, judged by today’s standards, could be deemed inappropriate and it has come from both males and females. I have seen Members meet, date and be married happily for years. I have also seen Members meet, date, and have a very acrimonious split, I have seen spurned and unhappy males and females, I have seen mutually accepted flirting and I’ve seen some flirting from both genders that was unwelcome.
When you put males and females into a workplace it is naive to think that a certain amount of sexually based interaction won’t occur. At what point is any of this sexual harassment? I don’t really know. What I do know is that an allegation of sexual harassment is an easy one to make and a difficult one to defend against. If the employer goes public in a defensive move, they are branded as bullies and having a ‘toxic culture’. Remaining silent simply reinforces the allegations. Perhaps the point I’m making is this; if an officer has been mis-treated or harassed and if there is an internal process to deal with that, then they should deal with it professionally, in a timely manner and in the proper venue so that all of the facts and both sides of the story can be told.
The Media Factor
Having a free media is integral to having a free society and its’ importance can’t be overstated.
Having said that, an independent, impartial police force that has the support and the trust of the public is just as important and I wonder sometimes if this gets lost in all the clutter.
When it comes to policing, does the media have a responsibility to report all the facts in a balanced manner, to report the good with the bad? What public need gets met if the media portrays policing in such a consistently negative manner that potentially good candidates decide on a different career path, when experienced officers leave for other employment, when public confidence is eroded and when disgruntled employees find a sympathetic and very public method of airing their grievances?
It’s not hard to find unhappy employees in almost any large organization. Sometimes they have genuine complaints and sometimes not but the media is rarely the best way of dealing with them. When it comes to media coverage, why is it front page news when a mid level RCMP employee has an affair with a subordinate?
Would the same coverage be given if it involved employees at the Bay, Telus, The Province or BC Hydro? Should a police officer be held to a higher moral and ethical standard than a Priest, a Politian, a Judge, a Doctor, a Teacher, a member of the Media?
Police officers are paid to enforce the law and keep the peace. They don’t make the laws, they don’t judge the accused and they don’t sentence the guilty. An officer may be a terrible spouse, a bad parent or a lousy neighbor and still be a good police officer.
Like most large organizations, there will always be a few who stumble, but most of the police officers I ever knew led exemplary professional and personal lives and nobody likes to be tarred with the same brush when a colleague does act badly. Unfortunately, when it comes to police organizations, the reporting of inappropriate behavior, mistakes, internal disputes or complaints is so tempting because after all, who doesn’t like watching the referee take a fall. The airing or publishing of unfounded complaints or allegations by a disgruntled employee is tantamount to interviewing a person about the character of their ex- spouse. It makes for interesting gossip but nothing more.
Decision vs Outcome
The very nature of police work places officers in confrontational situations where the outcome can vary greatly depending upon the action of the individual officer and on the decisions or actions of the person(s) they are interacting with.
Rightly or wrongly, the consequences of an officer’s decision or action can be incredibly serious and are often judged not on the circumstances but on the outcome. As an example I will use one of the most controversial police actions in recent history, the Robert Dziekanski case.
I use it not because I agree or disagree with the actions of the police, I wasn’t there. I use it because it illustrates the point I’m trying to make about action & circumstances vs outcome. In this case, the police officers receive a report of a man acting erratically in the airport arrivals area. They have no idea who he is or what the situation is. They arrive and find a person who they cannot verbally communicate with and who is agitated and refuses to settle down. Almost any adult in the world knows that a person in uniform represents authority and would calm down, but in this case he continued to act erratically. Of course in hind sight we know why, but at that time these officer’s didn’t and quickly decided to use a Taser.
It is important to remember that this was a Force sanctioned weapon and these officers had been trained to believe that it was a safe & effective method of taking control of a violent or resisting suspect. Now imagine if things had worked the way these officers ‘expected’ it would. The suspect would have collapsed to the ground unharmed and the officers would have placed him in restraints, taken him to cells and the entire matter would have been a non issue, just like hundreds of similar situations every day. In this case, however, the ‘outcome’ of the officer’s decision was far different than what they expected and they were judged on the outcome, not the circumstances.
Allow me to expand further with a different scenario. What if, instead of a Taser, the officers had decided they would try to physically restrain the suspect. In the altercation, the suspect fell, striking his head on the desk and dying. I suspect many would have been critical, stating that they were issued Tasers for a reason and had failed to use the best possible method available to them. Again, judged on the outcome and not the action. Lastly, suppose they had decided to simply try talking to and calming the subject down, but, in spite of that, he became so agitated that he threw a chair through the plate glass window causing a section of it to kill a civilian on the other side.
Without doubt, many would accuse the officers of not acting quickly enough. These are just a few sample scenarios based on one example and hopefully illustrates how an outcome can vary on factors beyond the control of the officer. The public seems quick to demand that police abandon techniques and tools that have resulted in death or injury and yet many more people die every year due to a bad reaction to anesthesia and we don’t demand returning to a shot of whiskey and a stick to bite on.
The Judgment Factor
Perhaps it’s because I was with the RCMP and am overly sensitive, but it seems to me that there is a decidedly negative slant to much of the media coverage with regards to the Force.
This ignores the fact that the vast majority of Members provide an amazing service in an almost impossible job. This is not to say they are ‘better’ than officers from other departments and forces, but they are certainly not worse! In actual fact, it’s pretty easy to find positive and negative incidents involving every and any police force.
The very nature of police work places officers into conflict situations involving violent & emotional situations where they are often subject to physical and verbal abuse and are required to make almost impossible decisions under the worst of conditions… and time and time again they do so with amazing success. But, like any human endeavor, there is the human factor.
Most humans will go their entire adult lives and never be involved in a serious physical or even verbal confrontation. Officers are involved in just such incidents time after time. Officers may be routinely cursed at, assaulted, have their families threatened, be spit upon, have feces thrown at them or deal with any number of other challenging situations and they may have acquitted themselves well on each occasion. Imagine then that one shift the same Officer may come to work distracted with personal issues.
It could be an argument with a spouse, no sleep because of a sick child, money or health worries or any of the myriad of issues that can occur with any human being. This time, when the drunk spits on them or threatens their family they snap and treat them roughly. The action is caught on tape and the world will judge that officer’s entire career on a five second video tape. Ironically, the ones who will judge him are those who have likely never been tested even once. It’s like the soldier who fights bravely in 19 fire fights and on the 20th breaks down and runs. Those who will sit in judgment may well have never been in a single fire fight… and yet they WILL judge and that soldier’s career, integrity and courage will often be measured based solely on that 20th fight.
There has been a lot of public comment about how the RCMP is ‘broken’ or dysfunctional and should be replaced. This ignores that fact that almost every police organization has its share of both personnel or operational problems . Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on particular police departments and focus on police work itself. Are we asking too much of these young men and women? Is it realistic to hold them to standards so high they are virtually impossible to meet. What is a ‘fair’ standard? How can that be determined? Certainly by men and women smarter than me, but if we want our best and our brightest to serve as police officers, we have to find a way to treat them better, to accept, that in spite of best efforts, mistakes will be made and that some mistakes will have a high cost.
Perhaps we should consider this - Is it possible that no human being is really and truly equipped to handle all of the things a police officer must see, do and feel on a regular basis throughout their career and that ultimately, individuals and organizations can only do their best.
If you are a critic and feel you could do better, please, step up and be fitted for a uniform…. when you have faced the challenges and passed the test then by all means, weigh in, criticize, offer suggestions and judgments. At least you will have earned the right.