RCMP fails to respond to request for use-of-force statistics

More than a year after The Current asked the RCMP to release information about how often Fraser Valley officers use tasers, draw their guns, and deploy police dogs the Mounties have yet to provide any data.

By Tyler Olsen | September 15, 2022 |5:00 am

You have the right to remain informed—but there’s no guarantee that those rights will be satisfied by Canada’s federal police force.

More than a year after The Current asked the RCMP to release information about how often Fraser Valley officers use force and draw their guns, the Mounties have yet to provide any data. That’s despite a law requiring federal agencies to respond to information requests within 30 days.

The statistics The Current requested can illustrate trends about how quickly officers use force in the course of their jobs, and which options they turn to when they deem it necessary to do so. They also provide specific information about the frequency with which officers point weapons, use tasers, deploy dogs, and use physical takedowns in the course of their jobs.

Previously released data has suggested that police have been quicker to draw their guns in recent years both in Abbotsford elsewhere. Last spring, The Current requested from both the Abbotsford Police Department and the RCMP. The APD provided the information within a month. But more than a year after being asked, the RCMP still hasn’t provided any data. That has now led The Current to file a complaint with Canada’s Information Commissioner.

It will be far from the only complaint the Mounties receive about their inability to respond to information requests. On average, a new complaint about the RCMP’s handling of information is filed each day, and Canada’s Information Commissioner recently took the Mounties to task.

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How often do police point their guns?

Last year, The Current reported on an incident in which an Abbotsford security guard was confronted at gunpoint while at work. That incident led to police discipline, but only because the officer deleted a video recording of the event. The man, Navee Thandi, told The Current that the officer’s display of her gun during the incident made him fear for his life.

Pointing, or just drawing, a gun is considered an application of force that should only take place in certain circumstances. In 2020, this reporter obtained information from the Abbotsford Police Department that revealed officers had been drawing and pointing firearms more frequently than in preceding years.

Last year, The Current sought to follow up that story with updated information for the entire Fraser Valley. That information would also include details on the use of police dogs, tasers, and physical takedowns. Information requests were submitted to both the RCMP and the Abbotsford Police Department. (The Abbotsford Police Department is the valley’s only municipal police department. The rest are RCMP detachments.)

Use-of-force statistics can be used to understand how police officers and departments operate. They also inform reporting on individual events like police shootings, physical altercations and holds, and public interactions. Locally, they would put those previously obtained APD figures into a larger context: without the RCMP figures, it’s difficult to understand why Abbotsford’s officers were drawing their weapons more frequently in that community, and whether the situation is local or regional.

But the pursuit of that information reveals a different problem facing Canada’s federal police force.Two different forces

The APD and RCMP operate under different information and privacy legislation.

As a provincially regulated municipal force, the APD must comply with BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The RCMP, meanwhile, operates under federal Access to Information and Privacy rules.

Although they are different in shape and scope, both pieces of legislation exist to allow Candians to access public information held by government bodies. Both laws compel police forces to release most statistics they have compiled—like those on the use of force—when they are requested, with some exceptions.

Both the federal and provincial legislation give public bodies 30 business days to respond to requests. (The legislation also allows those bodies to grant themselves a 30-day extension if they can’t get the information on time.)

On May 10, 2021, The Current filed a freedom of information request with the Abbotsford Police Department. On June 21—29 business days after our submission—the department provided statistics through the end of 2020.

On May 12, 2021, The Current submitted an Access to Information Request to the RCMP and paid the mandatory $5 application fee. Thirty days came and went. Sixty days came and went.

The Current was busy, aware of the RCMP’s difficulty in meeting its timelines, and did not immediately follow up. Summer turned to fall, 90 days came and went. The valley flooded. The Current became even more busy.

By late July, 2022, we returned to the topic. In a brief email, The Current requested that the records be provided as soon as possible.

On August 12, 313 business days since the information request was filed, an analyst from the RCMP responded. It was not good news:

“Our office is experiencing a large volume of requests resulting in lengthy delays in processing.

“Your file is currently with our Processing Unit. … Once we have obtained the records relevant to your request, it will be assigned and reviewed by one of our Disclosure Teams where a response will be sent to you. We cannot provide you a time line as to when it will be sent, as there are other files in the queue that may have an impact on when your request is finalized.”

In an email, the RCMP told The Current its information request is in a long queue.
In an email, the RCMP told The Current its information request is in a long queue.

The email informs recipients that a complaint could be filed with Canada’s Information Commissioner. A few days later, The Current filled out a complaint form with the Information Commissioner of Canada, checking a box indicating that the issue was a “deemed refusal.” A “deemed refusal” is a technical term that essentially means that a public body has, through illegal delays, refused to release a record.

No news is bad news

Delays aren’t just delays. Often, they significantly reduce the usefulness of the information when it is finally released.

The longer the time gap between requesting and receiving the information, the more out-of-date the information will be when a recipient finally gets their hands on it. The Current requested use-of-force statistics for 2020 and several years preceding it. Information from 2021 will now require a new request (and presumably another year-plus of waiting).

Canada’s federal government has repeatedly been taken to task by reporters, researchers, the public, and its own Information Commission for federal agencies’ inability or refusal to meet their legal disclosure requirements.

Among reporters, stories about years-old ATIPs are common.

Despite Liberal promises to improve the system, most evidence suggests it has only deteriorated further in recent years. The vast majority of complaints are not about redactions or refusals to release information, but about the administration of the system and the long delays many requesters (like The Current) face.

Within this system, the RCMP is one of the worst performers. (The RCMP is a two-time “winner” of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy.)

Complaints to the federal Information Commissioner have tripled since 2015; last year’s total set another record. Of the complaints, 458 were filed regarding the RCMP’s handling of information requests.

Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard. 📷 Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard. 📷 Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.

In 2020, Carline Maynard, the Information Commissioner of Canada, wrote a scathing report calling the RCMP to task for failing to meet its obligations and decrying a lack of buy-in from leadership.

“The RCMP is persistently unable to meet statutory timeframes,” Maynard reported. “The RCMP asserts it has implemented many strategies to improve response times under the Act. However, my investigation revealed that the strategies implemented to date have failed to improve the RCMP’s performance.”

And Maynard said in her 2020 report that the force didn’t seem to really care. She noted that RCMP did little to respond to her investigation, and that she “received no communication that would convince me that the RCMP is truly ready to address these problems.”

Two years later, the RCMP continues to only respond to around one-quarter of requests within the legal timeframe. But the Mounties have also begun to acknowledge the problems exposed in Maynard’s damning report.

Earlier this year, the force issued a report and plan to address its information failures. That report included a foreword by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki acknowledging the importance and legitimacy of Maynard’s criticism and promising to do better. In response to queries from The Current, an RCMP spokesperson pointed to that report and plans to increase resources to deal with ATIP requests and modernize its procedures. They also wrote that the force’s compliance rate improved in 2021-22. (Government statistics show that the force closed 26.4% of requests on time, up from 24.9% the year prior.)

In an interview, Maynard told The Current that the RCMP continues to struggle to provide information, though there have been improvements.

“I think they’re doing a little bit better, but not as quickly as we would expect or hope,” she said. But Maynard also acknowledged that improvements will take time. The RCMP, she noted, remains a paper-based organization that deals with delicate subjects. Many of the solutions, she noted, will come from improved use of technology to more efficiently collect and store information so that it can be accessed and released more quickly when requested.

But there also needs to be a culture shift both at the RCMP and across government in favour of proactive disclosure, Maynard said.

“People need to look at documents not with the view of ‘What do I need to redact and what is it that I don’t want to share,’ but more with a view of: ‘I want to share this information.’”

Governments have pointed to an increase in the number of requests as one of the reasons they have struggled to respond in a timely manner. In BC, the government cited the increasing number of requests as one reason that a fee was brought in for new applicants. (Federally, a $5 application fee is required for many requests.)

Maynard noted that the number of ATIP requests has more than tripled over the last six years. But that reflects the public’s desire to know more about their governments, said Maynard, who noted that two-thirds of requests come from ordinary members of the public, and not the media, lawyers or other organizations.

Information requests, she said, reflect the desire of the public to understand how their government works, and how important it is for government to fully explain what it is doing and why.

“If they don’t get the information from our government, they will look at other sources of information to make their own decisions and whether to believe or not what they’re being told,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a price for that. If you want Canadians to have confidence and to trust our government, we have to provide them with more information.”

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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