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RCMP Employee Relations: A Model for Disaster

Nov 29

As I write this article I am thinking of the tragic death of Cst. Eric Czapnik of the Ottawa Police Service.  A sampling of the media’s response to this event reveals a strong interest in the alleged perpetrator’s character.  Cst. Kevin Gregson, of the RCMP, was described variously as “a deeply troubled man”, “a sociopath”, “paranoid”, “irrational”, and “not normal or healthy”.  What was missing was an interest in the context in which Cst. Gregson came to do what he did to Cst. Czapnik.

The prevention of violence has become one of the most important issues facing communities today.  Unfortunately, the study of the phenomenon has been largely carried out from the perspective of individual disposition.  That is, from the theoretical position that behaviour is determined mainly by individual factors including: personality, attitudes, values,  beliefs, opinions, and the like.

These models however, have proven less than useful and are unable to account for the interactional nature of violence.  Why this particular victim?    These models are also unable to account for variability over time and/or place.  Why this specific time and in this exact location?  Moreover, these models fail to explain the occurrence or non-occurrence of a violent act.  Why did motivation, context, and precipitating factors equal violence on this occasion and not another?  Cst. Gregson is said to have actually knocked on the former Commissioner’s residential front door during his conflict with his employer.

An excessive focus on the individual fails to recognize the contingent nature of violence.  Experts advise that the genesis of individual violence lies as much within the systems, policies, and procedures of the institutions we inhabit as it does within us.  Therefore the methods utilized for the prevention of violence must, to some extent, derive from the examination of those institutional systems, policies, and procedures.

Tragically within the RCMP it seems that compassion and consideration toward its members are viewed as weak, dangerous, impossible, or precedent setting.  Many of the members’ concerns are ignored in the organization’s zeal to “maintiens le droit”.  Studies of RCMP management suggest, “…that the majority of ….RCMP employees, would give the organization a failing grade with respect to …”, a series of HR functions including “…the provision of a supportive work environment”.  Moreover, these authors assert that for many of these same RCMP employees “their job is making them sick”.

Every RCMP member in addition to being an individual is also a member of a large bureaucracy that consumes inordinate amounts of their lives.  Any violence they may perpetrate (against themselves, their families, or others) is the result of a process, too rich and too complex to be held entirely within their disposition.  An alternate perspective on violence was suggested by experts:

“Violence is a process, as well as an act.  Violent behaviour does not occur in a vacuum.  Careful analysis of violent incidents shows that violent acts often are the culmination of long developing, identifiable trails of problems, conflict, disputes, and failures”.

Assessing Violence
If you think of some types of violence (against oneself or others) as an individual’s response to what he views as a hopeless situation, then it becomes clear that anyone can become violent under the right conditions.  One expert explains how violence is a potential within all human beings as none of us can stand “the perpetually numbing experience” of our own powerlessness.  Imagine being a member of a huge organization like the RCMP, where you (and apparently many of your co-workers) felt mistrusted, disrespected, unfairly treated, and poorly led.  Moreover, you felt powerless to ensure the satisfaction of deep-seated human needs like security, recognition, identity, attachment, participation, fair play, autonomy, and understanding.  You suffered frequent disrespect and unfair treatment at the hands of incompetent supervisors.  What would you do?  Would you succumb without doing or saying anything?  From this perspective violence can be seen as an attempt to regain one’s efficacy; to have one’s needs met.  We all have our limits.  To truly understand the genesis of a violent act we must consider the interaction between individuals, institutions, problems, and institutional responses.

The Individual
From an interactional perspective, the RCMP member’s personality is not fixed, and her history is not a coherent, continuous line from past to present.  Her past is characterized by discontinuity.  Minor, barely visible events in her past can take on greater importance in the present due to situational changes or challenges in the present.  Whereas significant events in the past can recede into minor importance as a result of some present experience.  The member makes and remakes her history from moment to moment as her personality adapts to the changing circumstances she encounters in her relationships and her work.  It is well to remember that all members’ dispositions were viewed as “normal” enough upon engagement to be hired by the RCMP.  If their selection process is valid, the question that begs to be asked is, what happened to them in the meantime?

The Problem
Determining someone’s potential for violence based upon individual factors is not enough to offer an opinion as to risk.  There are some of us who appear to have more violent dispositions and don’t engage in violence; and there are those of us who do not have such dispositions and do engage in violence.  The catalyst is that the individual’s ability to cope must be challenged by a problem.  Problems usually involve the frustration of basic human needs.  In a large impersonal organization like the RCMP, deep-seated needs can be frustrated by injury, illness, destructive criticism, ridicule, harassment, rejection, transfer, arbitrary decisions, no effective representation, a broken promotion process, or an ineffective grievance or harassment procedure.

It is in these circumstances that an RCMP member, ill-equipped to cope on his own, may begin to suffer.  He is overwhelmed by his powerlessness, and might begin to present a risk for violence to himself or others.  Moreover, with the tendency to view himself as a victim, it is not likely he will recognize his contribution to the conflict.  He will probably blame others and end up exhausting their patience and driving them away.  Now more than ever his desperation and hopelessness increase, leading him closer and closer to a violent act.  This dynamic underscores the importance of the RCMP actually practising it’s “Mission, Vision, and Values”.

Institutional Response
One variable of the equation is still missing.  It is an institution that either ignores the warning signs, or deals with them ineffectively, and permits violence to occur.  As was suggested above, violence is as much a process as it is an act; during which signposts appear signifying danger that must be recognized and dealt with effectively if the organization wants to prevent a tragedy.  The RCMP cannot be expected to identify all those with dispositions for violence at the time of hiring.  However, as with all institutions it must be able to recognize the signals of dissatisfaction in its members and do something about them.  We are told that Cst. Gregson had many dealings with RCMP Occupational Health and Safety (OHS).  Did they not recognize his distress?

The RCMP must do something different.  It’s usual methods for dealing with dissatisfied individuals have become toxic.  Consider for example an RCMP member who is harassed by a supervisor.  He is under stress and begins to exhibit warning signs.   It is not uncommon that these signs are either ignored by managers (to avoid confrontation), or dealt with ineffectively (e.g. transfer the member, promote him, or get a “Div. Rep” involved).  Eventually his behaviour deteriorates and he goes “off duty sick”, is disciplined, or suspended.  He now, in many cases, begins to medicate himself with alcohol (drugs, sex, food, or emotion) and catastrophizes about his situation.

The alternative to this process includes rather than excludes, supports rather than alienates, and is based upon a commitment to care for the members of the organization.  Unfortunately, in many instances, the RCMP seems more committed to caring for its archaic image than caring for its members.  When such a “duty to care” is demonstrated to members, it now becomes the rule rather than the exception that competent supervisors will intervene at the first sign of a problem.  Individuals whose basic needs have been frustrated, and are at risk, are provided with some hope and the evidence that they belong and someone cares.  A dialogue is opened up with the member, resulting in him feeling like a participant rather than an adversary.  An alternative to conflict, opposition, and combat is presented that includes confronting the problem, providing the member with a full hearing, an investigation of the genesis of the problem, and an attempt to reach a mutually satisfying solution, regardless of what that solution may be.  Even if the outcome involves discipline or termination, there is a greater chance a process like this will result in the preservation of the member’s dignity.  The RCMP’s, typically, prolonged adversarial process would be replaced by a cooperative and collaborative one with an increased opportunity for a mutually satisfying outcome.  Just by changing, what seems to be, the Force’s philosophy of “you are our problem” to “we have a problem” can increase its chances of avoiding those infrequent (but not unheard of) occasions where their members have perpetrated violence against themselves or others.

The RCMP prides itself in being “best practice” in many areas of its functioning.  When it comes to critical HR functions, and most importantly the provision of a supportive work environment, it fails miserably.  More than half of its front line members would not choose to be a member of the organization, if they could make the decision again, nor would they recommend the organization to a family member or friend.

In closing, let me share with you a brief summary of one member’s presently unfolding horror story, as a current example.  He has over 30 years of well reported service.  He has been on medical leave for almost 2 years due to harassment in the workplace that he endured for at least 3 years prior to going “off duty sick”.  He is presently involved in a treatment program that involves an independent medical assessment (IME).  He has agreed to speak with the “return to work bunch” after his IME is completed.  This wasn’t good enough for the “return to work bunch”.  Three days ago they stopped the direct deposit of his pay cheque and he must pick it up from them, in person, at HQ.  Are you getting the picture?

Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.

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