You cannot have a police force without a code of rules—most of them unwritten

I was talking last week to a veteran Mountie, retired from the RCMP now for more than 30 years, after a career that was at least that long and took him to the rank, I believe, of inspector, though I’m not sure about that.

“What,” I asked “has gone wrong? Why is it that an institution, which for well over a century managed to operate with scarcely a blemish on its record, now encounters problems at every turn.

Discipline problems, training problems, money control problems—so much so that a civilian has been called in to take them over.”

“Too long,” he said. “I’ve been far too long away from them to make any worthwhile observations.”

I knew he would say this and it may be largely true. But perhaps not entirely.

“Well did you see any changes even in your day that could have led to the problems we have today?”

He was slow to answer me, but I knew he wanted to say something, but was hesitant to do so.

“Come on, out with it,” I said.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” he said at last, “but I think it started with the women. I think when we took women into the force, that began a major change. And that change has led to what we have today.

“You don’t mean to say,” I said, “that women caused all the problems that the Mounties are now confronted with.?”

“No, no, not at all,” he said. “Women make very good officers, much better in some ways than men.”

“Then how did they start the problem?

He then explained that up until women began to appear in the Mountie uniform, the RCMP was very much like a military unit. It had a kind of regimental discipline. A code.

Some of it was spelled out. Some of it was just assumed.

You just knew what you were supposed to do, and if you didn’t do it you were out. And there were some things you were not supposed to do, and if you did them you were out even faster.

There were written rules, of course. But these were mostly unwritten rules, and they governed conduct from the lowest ranks to the very top.

It was at the top, he said, where the rules were less specific, but they were there none the less. And it is at the top where the greatest dangers to the force always lie.

It had to do with the relations between the police and the government, a very delicate area. The force was responsible to the government. Canada is a democracy and it had to be. An absolutely independent police force would be an impediment to democracy, and all over the world all through history, police forces and military forces have become so independent they have taken over governments.

But on the other side, they had to be ready to enforce the law, when the government itself, or people in the government broke it.

So there was a fine line which the commissioners of his day, he said, well understood and toed it.

But that line and the duty of toeing it was also part of the unwritten rule.

Anyway, when the women came, everything changed.

A police force of men, and a police force of men and women, are not the same thing.

What you can say, what you can do, how you behave and where, all this must change.

And these changes quickly meant that the rules must change too.

But change to what, exactly?

“Even in my day,” he said, “no one was altogether sure. The effect of the women was to destabilize the rules, and already a kind of basic uncertainty began to become evident among us all.”

He was not saying, he stressed, that there should be no women in the Mounties.

But you cannot have a police force without a code of rules, most of them unwritten, and you cannot invent a new code overnight.

It must be the product of experience. It takes years and years to develop a new code. And during this transitional period, all sorts of things will go wrong.

And that, he figures, is what’s gone wrong in the Mounties.

And a great many other things in society, you come to think about it.

We need a new set of rules and we don’t have them.