RCMP commissioner welcomes 'thoughtful' discussions on defunding the police
TORONTO -- RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki says she is not afraid to hold police officers to account who use excessive force and that racism has no place in policing.
“Absolutely, unequivocally, there is no room for that,” Lucki told CTV National News Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme in an interview on Wednesday.
The RCMP is facing greater scrutiny following a series of recent incidents across Canada, including a First Nations Chief in Alberta who claims we was beaten by police over an expired licence plate tag and a man in Nunavut who was arrested by being knocked over by a police vehicle.
On Monday, the RCMP's commanding officer in Alberta denied the existence of systemic racism in policing during a press conference. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland responded by saying that Canadian police need to act with an understanding that systemic racism exists.
Lucki announced earlier this week that the RCMP would equip some officers with body cameras following a conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The move was criticized by many activists and experts, with one criminologist calling the gesture “a distraction” to confronting real police accountability.
In an interview with CTV News, Lucki addressed the push for body cameras, her thoughts on growing calls to defund the police and what she calls the problem of "unconscious bias" in the RCMP.
Lisa LaFlamme: So where do you stand? Is there systemic racism in Canadian policing?
Brenda Lucki: You know Lisa, I did speak with Deputy Commissioner Zablocki this morning after that and we talked about what did systemic racism mean. And I really struggle with and — and I’m not trying to avoid your question — but I’m struggling with it because I’ve heard about five or six definitions.
And so when I think of systemic racism being embedded into policy and procedure, one thing I do know for sure in the RCMP is we look through that (gender-based analysis plus) lens to identify the ways in which policies and practices may unintentionally disadvantage some groups, and we want to continue to learn from that and make sure that we absolutely in our organization promote that inclusion.
So when I think of it in those terms, I think it’s not completely systemic. But then I think of the terms of unconscious bias, I think we’re not immune to that, and I think there is unconscious bias in our organization and we work hard to work through it. We have courses on it. We embed it in our training and in our policies and our procedures. But it still is there.
Lisa LaFlamme: You know, it’s interesting that you call it unconscious bias. I mean, I always wonder if that’s letting someone off the hook, because most biases are very conscious.
Lucki: This could be true in many cases, and I think, we base our behaviours in the RCMP on our core values. And one of the ones that I always think of the most is integrity, and that’s always doing the right thing when nobody is looking. And that’s such a strong value. And I think of our core values and I think, whenever our members don’t uphold those core values, which includes (being against) racism, then they need to be held to account.
So there is no room for racism or discrimination in my organization. I want to be clear about that.
LaFlamme: So I just wonder how you fix this. If your own deputy commissioner has what you call an unconscious bias, how can you educate frontline officers today with that kind of a mindset? Shouldn’t we expect more as Canadians?
Lucki: Absolutely. It’s a huge time in our history. And it’s a big time for the police to step up. And you know, the bar is set high, but so are my expectations. And I am absolutely motivated and determined to make change in the RCMP. I came to be the Commissioner two years ago with a mandate to modernize our police agency to make it the most modern and world-class organization, and we are on the road to those changes and that transformation. And just on this alone, today our senior executive committee and our senior management team, which includes all the commanding officers from coast to coast to coast, started having that conversation. It’s not an easy conversation, and you know what, nor should it be.
And I think we need to step it up, we need to have the difficult conversations, and admit where we have this gaps and where we are not doing well and how can we increase the trust of the Canadians in which we protect.
Laflamme: I have to say, I’m surprised to hear you just started having this conversation today. It’s 2020, I know you’ve been in various detachments across this country for 34 years. So it is a surprise to hear that you’re just starting this conversation on something that we have a string of examples clearly, even while these anti-racism protests have been happening, we have an Indigenous man in Nunavut doing no harm who gets smashed into by an RCMP car. I’m sure you’re familiar with that footage. What did you do when you saw that video?
Lucki: Well I first want to make it very clear, we did not start having the conversations today. These conversations are embedded in our training, they are embedded in all the leadership training that we have. What I was referring to is given in light of recent events, we’ve had conversations, more conversations, more in-depth conversations about it, but it’s not new conversations.
In regards to the incident in Nunavut, of course I’m concerned and we will get that reviewed by … going to Nunavut to review that incident. We need to make sure that our members are held to account and they are going to do an investigation of that event.
LaFlamme: I can give you a string of examples. The chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation beaten up over an expired licence tag. A First Nations woman in New Brunswick who ends up shot to death on the very day, by the way, George Floyd was killed, during a check up on her own wellness. So where is that accountability?
Lucki: Well in New Brunswick, with the Edmundston City Police, we took carriage of that event and ensured again that we got the independent bureau of investigations from Quebec. The RCMP was not involved in that incident but we were making sure it was investigated independently again.
But what I do think is that we are not afraid to hold ourselves to account. We need to hold ourselves to account and that’s the only way we’re going to get better. And I’m not trying to minimize anything that’s happened to anybody in any of the calls for service. But in any given year we have close to three million calls for service, and in 99.9 per cent of those calls, there is no use of force used. So on that less than 1 per cent that it’s used, we need to get better at that.
LaFlamme: And you say that these are all under review. Which is a safe word, to be under review, that something is happening. But is it wrong for you to just say out loud, ‘This is wrong, these video clips we are all seeing, it’s wrong what these officers have done’?
Lucki: Well, you know, I do say our system of justice is based on everybody is innocent until proven guilty, and I believe in that, and I have to believe in that, because that’s the system of our justice in Canada.
And so when I look at a video and that is just one part of that investigation. And in many cases there’s a lot of time before the video starts, so there might be de-escalation techniques or crisis intervention that happened before the video was turned on. We’re only seeing one part of that. So we need to do a full investigation to make sure that what we see is what’s in front of us and make sure that we hold our members to account when it isn’t in line with our core values.
LaFlamme: And I think we all, Canadians all recognize that there are heroic Mounties. And I point to Cont. Stevenson murdered in Nova Scotia within the last two months, and so many others over decades. But there is clearly a deep mistrust between police and the Indigenous community, the Black community, people of colour. What is your solution for this?
Lucki: Well first, thanks for recognizing the good work that our members do, because it’s really important to me. And I struggle because really, it’s not about that, but it is important because I worry about our members’ resilience, and how they move forward, because policing is a very tough profession, especially in this day and age.
But we need to make sure that from the time we select people into our organization and we train them at our training academy and we watch them go through their cadet field coaching, and we give them in-service training, throughout their entire career, we have to make sure that our core values are embedded in everything that we do. We have to make sure that they live to our core values.
And actions speak louder than words. And that’s the only way that we’re going to increase the trust that Canadians and Indigenous Canadians have in our police.
LaFlamme: And I just wonder if this is demoralizing for you personally having worked as you have to try to improve conditions within communities, to still see so many raw examples of things that seem like heavy-handed police tactics against these communities?
Lucki: This is a moment for leadership, and I have great hope — I honestly believe that the steps we’re taking in modernizing our organization will improve our day-to-day operations. Our Vision 150 is based in investing in our people will make for greater operations and a better policing service with greater trust from our citizens.
And it’s not going to happen overnight. But if members are not doing actions in line with our core values, we will hold them to account. Absolutely, unequivocally, there is no room for that.
LaFlamme: This week you said you’ll outfit some officers with body cams as one effort to address systemic racism. So what is the point of those body cams, I have to ask, if you won’t make that footage available to Canadians? It’s hard to see that as accountability.
Lucki: Well the videos — after investigations are done and everything is completed, there are times when we have released the video. When things are under investigation, we are not releasing that video. But body-worn cameras are but one way of increasing trust, accountability, transparency, but it’s not the only way.
Again, you know it was interesting, I in the last few days have been reaching out to our diversity advisory committee, our Indigenous advisory committee, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and we’ve been talking — I’ve been doing a lot of listening — and it was interesting, one of the members of our diversity committee said body-worn cameras are just that.
There was many body cameras on the police officer who had his foot on Mr. Floyd’s neck, and that did not stop that. So it’s bigger than just cameras. But if those cameras are going to increase the trust that Canadians have in their RCMP, then absolutely, that’s something we need to look at.
And we need to work at any technology or training or philosophies that will increase that trust and create that transparency
LaFlamme: You’ve also said that you’re going to review neck hold restraints. If it can unintentionally killed even one person, then shouldn’t the practice be banned outright as we’re seeing in several U.S. cities right now?
Lucki: There is a difference between what they are referring to in the chokehold in the United States and our carotid control, and our carotid control is at the end of our use of force continuum. That’s when somebody is faced with grievous bodily harm or death. And like our firearm, it’s in the same location as our firearm, and that is not used for compliance. It’s used when you may be subject to death or grievous bodily harm, or somebody in the public. So we need to stop that threat. That’s where that carotid control is at. We don’t have chokeholds — we’ve banned those in the 70s.
LaFlamme: Right now there are, as the result of all the things that have been unfolding, right now there are growing calls to divert billions of dollars of police funding to preventive, responsive programs, defunding the police. Is that a solution, if police are not equipped to de-escalate tense situations?
Lucki: Well first and foremost we have worked a lot on, in the past few years, crisis intervention and de-escalation training, because it’s very important that we use that first before we go to use of force options.
But getting to defunding. Defunding to me means working better with our social agencies when people are in crisis, and I have to tell you, you can’t look at something singularly. For instance, if somebody is in a crisis, in a mental health crisis for example, at three in the morning wielding a knife, that’s not the time for a medical practitioner or a mental health practitioner to go in and try to de-escalate the situation. It’s too dangerous. That’s the time when police go in using the de-escalation techniques and what it takes to get that person calmed down so they can get the help from medical professionals.
But maybe we need to work side by side. We have models in some of our detachments where medical health practitioners are embedded in the police. When we talk about defunding, we welcome thoughtful and constructive dialogues on possible reforms of public safety. Absolutely. And the only thing I say is that those discussions need to be informed and evidence-based with the police at the table.
LaFlamme: So then do you think police are being unfairly demonized during this international conversation, and we bring it right down to Canada?
Lucki: I can say any time a police officer comes to work every single day and treats people with dignity and respect and tries to make their community better than when they got there, they are going to feel vilified by everything that’s going on because they are doing what they believe is good policing. And then there are some that might not live up to our core values. And unfortunately, that is some of what is happening — but there is no room for that. There is absolutely no room for that. And so we need to change that.
And we need to be able to walk a mile in people’s shoes and one of the things we have done in the last couple of years, it was actually when I was a commanding officer of our training academy, was we brought in the blanket exercise which teaches our cadets about empathy and about the history of Indigenous peoples, so that when they do act with an Indigenous person in a positive or in a negative manner, that they have an understanding of what they lived through — residential schools, the Sixties Scoop — all these different things that happened in the history that give them a better understanding so they may have more empathy when they’re dealing with somebody. And we need that with all people.
Laflamme: It almost sounds like you’re using that ‘a few bad apples’ umbrella. What about just following the law for these police officers and not strong-arming people?
Lucki: Absolutely. But there are times that we are dealing with people and de-escalation techniques don’t work, verbal intervention doesn’t work, and sometimes use of force is needed in order to have compliance and in order to keep people safe. Unfortunately that is part of what happens. And sometimes in those techniques people get hurt, and it’s not that people want to go into it wanting to hurt somebody. But sometimes when there’s a certain level of non-compliance, certain techniques are used and sometimes people get hurt, and that’s the unfortunate part of being a police officer.
LaFlamme: You’ve been the boss now for two years. You’ve tackled internal challenges of alleged abuse and racial bias inside the force. So I wonder what your measuring stick for success and educating officers that this treatment is not OK. Give me some perspective on your timeline.
Lucki: Well we have a lot of initiatives that are on track. If I had my wish, my timeline would’ve been yesterday, but some of these are big projects. We’re revamping our internal harassment process, we’re going to a completely independent system, we’re relying on a lot of advice from our new management advisory board, a lot of great people on that board that are providing us with advice. As a matter of fact, today I had a meeting with them as well and said here is what we’re dealing with, and they’re working through a lot of that.
We’re looking at our culture. I look at the last two years and we have 15 commanding officers in all of the province across the country. Now seven of those 15 are women. Those are changes. And will it show instantly that those changes in our culture? No, but we’re a big ship and we’re not going to turn on a dime. We’re not a canoe. So these changes in culture will take some time, but I think where absolutely sure is we’re going in the right direction. We have civilianized many of the positions on our senior executive team. We always were before police officers in those positions. We have a brand new female CIO. We have a new CHRO that is not a regular police officer, and she is Black, and it’s not about just that diversity, but bringing in different ideas and thoughts are going to change our organization and having that diversity. We have a new chief administrative officer — it’s the first time we’ve ever had that position in the RCMP that’s going to oversee the administrative functions.
So it’s about different categories of employees in the organization at the senior executive level, having diversity, and then bringing that diversity of thoughts and ideas. And I think we’re on the right track. But it will take time.
I’d love to go on about Vision 150, we have so many things going on, and it’s based on people first, which makes greater police operations, and for a safer Canada. And underneath there we have our people, our culture, our stewardship, and our policing services. And underneath each of those pillars are several initiatives.
LaFlamme: I have to say, you just said if you had your wish it would be yesterday. But you’re the boss. So I wonder, who is standing in your way?
Lucki: Well, you know, things take time to review. I look at for instance body-worn cameras. We have been reviewing body-worn cameras for years. But then all of a sudden we look and the technology is not conducive to the policing that the RCMP do. Geography, weather, storage space, battery life in cold climates. So every time that we’ve looked at it there have been some gaps in the technology, and we cannot make a big investment if it does not meet our needs.
You know, technology is changing, so that will assist. And then there’s big consultation because we have to go to our funding partners to see about the funding, and we look at our new police union, we will be consulting with them, with the privacy commissioner as well. So just that project alone, everything takes time and procurement processes as well.
So we would love to just say that we can make changes. We have made several changes in the last two years, and some of them are still in progress.