I’m on the road which is basically the only time I watch TV news and was pleased that I did this evening since I caught Terry Milewski’s excellent follow up piece on the how the RCMP has dealt (or in this case, not dealt) with investigating its own officers over the death of Polish traveler Robert Dziekanski.
The thing that really struck me about Milewski’s story was how much it appeared to suggest that the RCMPs method for dealing with problematic individuals parallels that of the Vatican’s. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the Vatican regularly moved priests it knew was molesting children from diocese to diocese. Priests like Father John Gagan, who molested dozens and dozens of people were never suspended or ordered to take treatment. They were simply shuffled around and the problem was covered up.
The retired RCMP officers in Milewski’s piece suggest that a similar practice occurs within the RCMP. For example, one of the officers involved in the death of Robert Dziekanski, Corporal Benjamin Robinson (who subsequently, has allegedly been involved in a drinking and driving incident which resulted in a death and in which he fled the scene) has apparently experienced a number of challenges in his previous posts. The point here is not to assess Corporal Robinson, but a system that promoted and moved him around rather than offer him needed support.
What is most scary for Canadians is that the RCMP does not appear to understand how quickly the public’s loss of faith could grow and thus manifest into a real crises of confidence in the organization. Consider the recent past of RCMP scandals:
- the allegations of fraud, theft and corruption around the (mis)management of its pension system
- its dubious intervention in a federal election and the failure of its leadership to cooperate in the subsequent investigation
- its (potenitally illegally) fundingof politically motivated research and the use morally questionable tactics in attempt to undermine Vancouver’s supervised injection site and promote the “war on drugs”
- Maher Arar: The RCMP incorrectly informs U.S. authorities that Mr. Arar is a possible extremist with ties to al-Qaeda, starting a chain of events that led to his deportation and torture in a Syrian jail.
- it’s failure to sufficiently investigate or police itself regarding the death of Robert Dziekanski
- A still more full list can be found here (Canadians should realize there magnitude of the problem when there is a whole Wikipedia entry dedicated to scandals within the RCMP)
In isolation, each scandal is not a problem. Collectively, given people’s capacity to use the internet to create coalitions and mobilize, resistance to bureaucratic, authoritarian and opaque institutions can crystallize very, very quickly.
Clay Shirky offers one of the best examples of this in his book, Here Comes Everybody where he talks about the rise of Voice of the Faithful – a catholic protest group formed in reaction to the pedophile priest scandal in 2002. Here is Shirky discussing the issue in an interview:
Because in 2002, Father John Gagan, a pedophile priest in Boston, was brought to trial and The Boston Globe covered the story. And during the course of this trial and then the subsequent outrage, this little group formed in a basement in January, called Voice of the Faithful. It was basically outraged Catholics who wanted to do something.
By that summer, they went from 30 people in a church basement to 25,000 members in 21 countries around the world. Now, groups don’t grow that fast, or they didn’t prior to the Internet.
And one of the really remarkable things that I think demonstrated how quickly the Catholic outrage solidified into this reaction – and Voice of the Faithful was instrumental in both changing Vatican policy but also getting several high-level bishops and archbishops to resign their posts because of the bad handling of the pedophile scandal.
The Catholic Church very much wanted to say, this is a one-off. This is an unusual case. But, in fact, almost exactly 10 years before, in 1992, something almost identical happened. In that case, the priest’s name was Porter. But it took place in the same diocese in Massachusetts. Bishop Law was the same person in charge. The Boston Globe was the same newspaper reporting.
But in that case, it just blew over. Part of the difference between ’92 and 2002, which is to say, between failure to reform the Church and at least partial success in reforming the Church, is that in ’92 The Boston Globe wasn’t really global. It was a local paper. There was no way for coverage in the Boston area to suddenly become of global importance.
The other part of the story is that it isn’t just about consuming media. It’s actually about doing something about it. Everybody who read about Voice of the Faithful in one of these stories could join online, they could make a donation immediately, and that changed from a big gap between thought and action in ’92 to a very small gap between thought and action in 2002.
Canadians are increasingly losing faith in the RCMP. And much like many Boston Catholics lost faith in the Vatican, they should be. It is an organization fraught with challenges, that has little, or at least very poor, civilian oversight.
The problem for the RCMP is that, increasingly, Canadians have the capacity to mobilize over this issue and the organization’s response to challenges to its authority have not been well received. Today, a rag tag and splintered group of people ranging from anti-rape activists, first nation advocates, the polish community, human and citizen right advocates and harm reduction advocates could be the proverbial 30 people in a basement Shirky talks about in his Voice of the Faithful example. When those concerned with the RCMP coalesce, it may appear to happen quickly and grow exponentially. My hope remains that the RCMP addresses its issues before this happens. My fear, is that without pressure, it won’t.
Ultimately, authoritarian and opaque institutions such as the RCMP and the Vatican will continue to have relevance in a world of networked enabled citizens, but I suspect that their freedom to operate unobserved and unquestioned will become increasingly constrained. Another painful transition is ahead, but one that is long overdue and necessary.