The conduct of the RCMP has been “under the gun” in recent years across Canada and for us in BC their history has been a particularly troubled over in the last decade.
The force has just renegotiated its policing agreement with the province and now, with a new cop’s cop in charge nationally who started out by saying all the things the public wants to hear, there’s an opportunity for the RCMP to begin rebuilding its reputation.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s appointment day response was that out-of-line RCMP officers could expect to have the book thrown at them – but by the time he was addressing a Senate committee on defence and national security last week, his responses lacked the ebullience of his first day.
While he said he would not hesitate to use third parties to investigate “serious harassment charges”, he declined a Senator’s suggestion that a “public enquiry” was needed to clear the air on sexual harassment.
My question becomes one of who then gets to decide when a sexual harassment charge is serious enough to pursue independently.
I certainly questioned this last week while reading newspaper reports of the case of a senior officer in Vancouver, Staff Sergeant Travis Pearson, who has pleaded guilty during an internal conduct hearing, to what his counsel, another RCMP officer, characterized as “a consensual affair” and as “an indiscretion that should not hinder Pearson from continuing his career with the RCMP.”
Cst. Susan Gastaldo and Staff Sgt. Travis Pearson both admitted having sex in a police car and exchanging intimate messages in 2009, while Gastaldo worked for Pearson in the “Special O” surveillance unit.
But other elements of Gastaldo’s story differ dramatically from Pearson’s. She has filed a civil suit in BC Supreme Court claiming Pearson used his power and her vulnerable mental condition to sexually assault her and coerce her into sexual relations – serious allegations indeed.
The same sentiments were expressed in other testimony in the same hearing by another RCMP employee. However, those allegations were only heard in the context of Gastaldo’s defence. They do not come within the disciplinary scope of the hearing, surely a discriminatory circumstance.
In this matter, notwithstanding the court action, both officers pled guilty, The consequence is that both could be docked 10 days pay – surely not a satisfactory solution with such serious allegations still unsettled.
It may be that this is out of Commissioner Paulson’s hands already since it is filed in the BC Supreme Court. So too may the allegations and the complaints of another BC officer, Cpl. Elisabeth Couture, who has also filed a lawsuit against the RCMP, accusing Mounties of demeaning and belittling her and forbidding her from making some work-related phone calls. When she complained, she claims she was told she was being watched.
Her lawyer, Marjorie Brown, says the abuse wasn’t sexual, but Couture suffered through an atmosphere of fear and control. “Cpl. Couture faced the problem of having the harassment face her at the hands of her superiors, so it was very difficult for her to achieve any resolution while she was working,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, there’s the outstanding case of Cpl. Catherine Galliford, formerly a high-profile RCMP public spokeswoman, who came forward to claim that she was driven to sick leave because of constant sexual harassment by superior and other male officers.
She has made even more serious allegations that important evidence in the investigation of serial-killer Robert Pickton, has gone “missing.”
Paulson promises to root out problem officers guilty of “dark-hearted behaviour” like excessive use of force and lying.
“We’re going to fire people, we’re going to suspend people immediately, we’re going to seek their dismissal through a formal procedure and we’re going to suspend their pay,” he said.
Strong words, but there’s a difference between “dark hearted” behaviour and incompetence, abuse of power, excessive use of force such as tasering, shootings and perhaps and deliberate interference with evidence in a multi-million dollar court case.
Harassment charges are only a small part of the range of systemic problems that Paulson agrees face the force under his new command
So, I was perturbed that his responses to the Senate committee seemed to be less forceful than his media reactions in November.
“Some (harassment) cases don’t merit a harassment response, some of them merit criminal proceedings, others merit Code of Conduct proceedings, but some of them merit ‘take it back to work, and smarten up,’ he told the committee.
His own response to the harassment scandal is driven by a “theory” he said he espouses that within the RCMP, as a paramilitary organization, “what’s wrong is how power has been misunderstood for authority.”
He told the senate committee, “The peace officer world is one where there’s authority and power over citizens and consequently officers are not always able to manage that in how they manage their colleagues. So that’s the theory according to Bob.”
But Paulson said fixing it depends on “how we manage our leadership program, how we manage our officers, how we hold officers to account.”
He’s right about that – and there have been so many serious incidents in BC alone that if no significant action is seen to be taken in a prompt manner, the RCMP’s reputation will continue to suffer – and Paulson’s with it.