Like a punch-drunk fighter, the RCMP keep dragging themselves up off the mat, staggering to their feet, and inexplicably thrusting out their jaw to take yet another unprotected blow. They lack strategy, forethought and any long-term vision of how to project a public image Canadians can trust.

This time, emails collected through a Freedom of Information request reveal RCMP officials feared a public relations crucifiction for The Force’s handling of the Robert Dziekanski incident at Vancouver International Airport last year. Several media outlets “broke” this story over the past few days, but in reality, this isn’t news. This tragic incident highlights everything wrong with a police force in crisis, both at the street level and in the upper ranks.

Historically, the RCMP media people shoot from the lip first, only to backpedal when they are found to be wrong or have misspoken or the situation proves more complicated than at first glance, which is almost always the case. They so clearly – almost naively – want to be seen as forthright, rushing to comment, reassuring Canadians their society is still safe and the Nation’s police are in control, but they are completely unaware of the two words that could save them embarrassment and elevate the public’s confidence in them: no comment.

Really, talking isn’t such a bad thing if they could just say the right thing. BC’s Staff Sgt. Tim Shields knows the media game, and he brings those much-needed skills in his return to the media gig after several years absence, likely in an effort to clean up the mess left by recently-departed Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre, a man who never met a rush to judgment he didn’t like. Where Shields commiserates with other British Columbians while discussing a fellow member accused of workplace harassment, Lemaitre presented pure indignation whenever a member of the pubic dared question the actions of any RCMP member. Shields presents an earnest, almost geeky honesty, Lemaitre channels back alley bully.

The RCMP culture remains firmly rooted in a simpler time, when red-serged Dudley Do-Rights rode the prairies, tipping their hats to the women and earning the man-crush admiration of the men. The culture continues to this day at the RCMP training academy, or Depot, as it is known in Regina. Recruits are indoctrinated – not trained – in The RCMP Way, not to be confused with the Right Way or the Wrong Way. They are told from the moment they walk through the door they are part of Canada’s history and, collectively, they are special, part of something far bigger than any individual. A wannabe Marine Corps, sans the night jumps. It is this indoctrination that makes them unable to view Canadian citizens – mere mortals – as their equals. One can’t accuse the RCMP of discrimination, however; they treat other police agencies and CSIS the same way.

What the RCMP individually and collectively fail to grasp is that Canada doesn’t want special, it wants people who can competently manage disorder, investigate crime and present an image that engenders confidence and communicates compassion for all – not only the families of fallen members or victims of crime. Not only must the justice system be fair, there must be a perception of fairness. The RCMP have survived by keeping this “us and them” view of society tucked in firmly under their Stetsons. Make no mistake, this is a survival mechanism: to allow that we all might not be so very different or that maybe a few lucky breaks or a bad day are all that separates the good guys from the bad guys throws much of the traditional para-military police culture into a knee-shaking, stomach-wrenching panic.

Municipal police forces aren’t immune to these problems, certainly. However, they don’t seem to carry the baggage of Canada’s national police force, the weight of history and the expectation that they be all law enforcement things to all people. Municipal forces have to some degree responded to a changing world and this isn’t lost on the RCMP, who have always viewed Municipal forces as weak sisters and poor cousins. Those days are gone and the Mounties can’t compete with the better-educated, better-trained and more community-based officers emerging in Canada’s cities. The RCMP view of society is reflected in their own workplaces, where female, visible minority, gay and lesbian officers fare far worse than in Municipal police departments in terms of peer acceptance and opportunities for advancement.

In British Columbia, balance eludes the RCMP media strategy, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Policing is a reactionary business – bad stuff happens, they respond. Nowhere is a plan more important than in public relations for a Force recently decimated by cries of racism, ineptitude, corruption and poor training.

The question is this: can the RCMP adapt to a changing Canada and a changing law enforcement landscape before they destroy themselves in the eyes of the public they serve?

Stay tuned.

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