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Open Letter to Zofia Cisowski

Globe and Mail update

Dear Zofia,

This is probably as close as you will come to a genuine apology from the RCMP. Unfortunately, the long history and rich tradition of the Force manifests itself today as arrogance and defensiveness. As you may know, I am the psychologist who was associated with the RCMP for over 30 years and testified at the Braidwood Commission. I have tried several times over the last few months to put what I want to say to you, about Robert's death, in the form of a letter. I want to strike the right balance and have my remarks reflect my displeasure with the RCMP executive and not the generally well meaning and hard working members. I think I have it right this time.

The way your son was treated on October 14, 2007 was in my opinion, the absolute worst of Canadian policing. Then to compound this, the British Columbia Criminal Justice Branch rendered its charge assessment (December 12, 2008) of the 4 RCM policemen who were involved in Robert's death. The Branch stated that it would not be “approving any charges” and that the force the policemen used was “reasonable and necessary in all the circumstances”. This statement reflects a profound misunderstanding and lack of respect for the application of force to vulnerable groups and those in crisis. How could this happen in Canada?

I want to assure you that it shouldn't be happening in a country like Canada and that there are mechanisms in place to prevent such travesties. Please be patient with me as I first provide some context to our search for answers.

As in all democratic societies, the police in Canada are given the authority to use force to ensure that the laws of the country are upheld and public safety and security are maintained. This, of course, carries the expectation that police persons and their organizations will be accountable to the public for any use of force. However, even though the community provides the police with the ability to employ legitimate force, several questions arise:

i. What is a reasonable use of force?

ii. Why and under what circumstances is one type of force chosen over another?; and,

iii. What standards are in place to ensure that there is consistency in addressing use of force situations?

The police, in Canada, have attempted to address these questions by developing use of force models. No matter whether it is the RCMP's Incident Management Intervention Model (IMIM) or the more widely used National Use of Force Framework (NUFF), these are attempts to integrate force options (e.g. presence, communication…etc.) with a generic decision making model (e.g. assess-plan-act). There are some key principles underlying these models:

i. The primary responsibility of a police person is to preserve and protect life;

ii. The primary objective of any use of force is to ensure public safety;

iii. The safety of the police person is essential to public safety; and,

iv. The use of force model does not replace the law

So far, so good. It sounds like the RCMP has ethical (and legal) guidelines that it must follow. So how could such a tragedy happen? The short answer is, an inept, insular, and archaic group of RCMP executives has let the Force fall out of step with 21st Century policing. Let me try to explain, using what many of us may only have been minimally aware of.

You may have noticed that all four of the RCMP members who confronted Robert were wearing black leather gloves. These are not part of the regulation RCMP working uniform. Why were they wearing them? They are called “slash” gloves and are designed to protect the wearer from sharp objects. In my considerable interactions with general duty (patrol) personnel I have come to understand there are two answers to the question. Yes, they are worn for protection but they are also worn for psychological effect. They are worn, by some, to intimidate (without giving much thought to how they could be perceived by the general public). Unfortunately the idea of intimidating people is entirely consistent with the RCMP management's way of managing conflict not only with the public but also with its own membership. The idea of protection is reflective of the RCMP executive's view of the public they police. We have become the “enemy” and they go to “war” with us each day, rather than collaborating with us to form a cohesive and consistent approach to policing our communities. The gloves are a symbol of the RCMP executive's relationship with the public. So in a perverse way we can understand the climate in which the Taser was so warmly embraced by the RCMP decision makers and is so enthusiastically deployed by its loyal members. What better way to terrify or stay at arm's length from the “great unwashed” than at the end of two 35 foot electrical wires?

Let me be clear, I hold the RCMP executive responsible for this attitude and indirectly responsible for Robert's death. Tragically, the four policemen were doing what they had been trained to do. They actually believed the incredible testimony they gave at the Inquiry. (Some law enforcement training materials actually suggest the use of a conducted energy weapon for people in an agitated state!). The RCMP executive is out of touch with their constituency and their own membership, content to pad around in their various national and regional headquarters. They have forgotten what Sir Robert Peel told us 180 years ago as he began the first professional police service (i.e. London's “Bobbies”). Among a list of principles fundamental to democratic policing he noted that the relationship of the police to the community must always reflect the historic tradition that “we are them and they are us”. To be specific, the RCMP must accept that they are not an elite group above and separate from the community. They are quite simply paid to do a job full-time that we should all be doing in our various neighbourhoods. They are only in uniform so that we can identify them when we need them. Unfortunately, the RCMP executive has forgotten this and become more interested in positive impression management than in maintaining public approval. (And if they knew their Peel they would realize that it is that approval that allows them to function at all). They view themselves as somehow apart from the rest of us, an elite group whose safety is more important than that of the most unfortunate among us, whose decisions are the preserve of only themselves and so called public safety “experts” (e.g. Taser International), and who devalue force options like “presence” and “communication” as naive and ineffective in today's world.

The RCMP decision makers made a fundamental and far reaching error when they based their decision to bring the Taser into Canada upon anecdotal reports from their own members and information from Taser International. They refused then and continue to refuse to recognize that this issue and issues like this are public policy. They live too close to the forest to see the trees and would benefit from public input. They don't have all the requisite expertise to make these kinds of decisions. A public advisory board comprised of policy analysts, those trained in research, scientific specialists, retired lawyers, judges, and police persons could add much to the decision making process regarding such important issues.

Finally, I would like to attempt to shed some light on the disappointing British Columbia Criminal Justice Department's recommendation regarding charges in Robert's case. In our system the Justice Department relies on the police to provide it with evidence upon which it offers a legal opinion. To be more specific, in this case the Justice Department was dependent upon the RCMP's IHIT to provide it with comprehensive evidence so that it could make the best decision.

It is a psychologically unsophisticated idea to believe that the RCMP can investigate itself. When I say this I am not questioning anyone's integrity. I am stating a fundamental principle of human behaviour. Human beings are highly subjective organisms; we see (hear, smell etc.) what we want to see, and we don't like to see things that make us look bad. (Recall the RCMP's original explanation of the incident, for which not a shred of evidence was found, or the meticulous unraveling of the IHIT's case). This is why medical doctors shouldn't be diagnosing themselves, researchers should be at arm's length from their own research, and I make a lousy psychologist for my own family. Didn't you find it interesting that one of the (supposed) finest police forces in the world reported that “no information was available to investigators regarding Mr. Dziekanski's emotional state during his flight to Vancouver from Frankfurt”? Then those intrepid sleuths from the Braidwood Commission (lawyers Art Vertlieb and Pat McGowan) without ever flying off to Poland, invited some of Robert's co-passengers and flight attendants to the hearing and found out that he was just fine. This is sometimes called selective perception; we look for and find only those things that would confirm our own perspective. I believe it was this faulty notion that the RCMP is the best judge of its own behaviour that resulted in the incredible ruling of the Criminal Justice Branch.

As someone who worked inside the organization for several decades I am deeply sorry for the RCMP's behaviour that contributed to Robert's death. I wish I could tell you that the issues I raised here, and many others, that are rotting the RCMP from the top down, will soon be changing. I won't do that as the RCMP is in need of significant transformational change in order to genuinely re-connect with the public and its own membership. Changing bits and pieces of its infrastructure, as outlined by its “change management team” will not suffice. The changes required need to go much deeper and challenge the Force's archaic self image and corporate culture. These kinds of changes focus on the outdated core values and culture that are most resistant to change; and most of the resistance comes from the top…the very people who make up the “change management team”. Massive organizational changes like this usually involve sweeping changes in senior management. Very few at the executive level who have had anything to do with shaping the recent history of the RCMP should be allowed anywhere near the room where genuine, and painful, transformation is being undertaken. I have little faith that anything of significance will change until the cabal in charge is gone; however, I want to assure you that I will continue to do everything in my power to shine a critical light on the role played by RCMP decision makers in Robert's death.

In closing, you may be aware that my testimony at the Braidwood Commission was challenged as “biased” by the RCMP members' lawyers. (And I'm sure they will try again in their final submissions). I am not biased, in a negative direction toward the RCMP. I have the deepest respect for the institution of the RCMP but very little respect for most members of the RCMP responsible for its present position and course. The executive level of the RCMP from one end of the country to the other is out of touch with both the public and its' own membership. It's time for someone to say “the emperor wears no clothes”.


Dr. Mike Webster

Police Psychologist

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