As RCMP defends neck hold, minister says he 'very clearly' laid out his expectations for reform

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino speaks with reporters on January 10, 2023 in Mexico City. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino speaks with reporters on January 10, 2023 in Mexico City. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says he has laid out "very clearly" the reforms he wants to see from RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki — comments that come as the RCMP continues to defend its use of a controversial neck hold.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed the minister to work with the RCMP to ban "the use of neck restraints in any circumstance." The promise was repeated in Mendicino's mandate letter to Lucki.

Earlier this month, the RCMP told CBC News the carotid control technique is safe and effective and it will keep instructing its officers to use the restraint in rare cases.

"Well, the very first thing I would say is that it is important that we reform our enforcement institutions," said Mendicino on his way into a caucus meeting Friday.

"That is precisely why, after receiving my mandate letter from the prime minister, I took the additional further step to lay out very clearly how we can create that that reform within the RCMP."

Vascular neck restraints involve compressing the arteries on either side of a person's neck, causing the person being restrained to slip into unconsciousness.

When used correctly, the restraint doesn't restrict breathing. It differs from the hold that killed George Floyd while in police custody in 2020, but the carotid restraint has come under intense scrutiny since then.

Lucki promised to review the technique after Floyd's death. A number of U.S. police forces have banned the carotid restraint.

RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival said the national police force has "not banned or placed a moratorium on the use of the carotid control technique."

Instead, she said, the RCMP issued new guidance to its officers late last year that "strengthens and clarifies definitions, oversight and accountability measures, the risks of applying the technique on medically high-risk groups, requirements for medical attention, the threshold for use and requirement to recertify annually on the policy regarding application."

National Police Federation/YouTube
National Police Federation/YouTube

Percival said the carotid control technique was used 25 times in 2020 and 14 times in 2021 by RCMP officers.

Mendicino said he'll keep working with the RCMP to usher in reforms.

"The point here is to ensure that the RCMP sets the gold standard when it comes to use of force so that we can keep Canadians safe and make sure that we're doing it in a way that is responsible and professional," he said Friday.

"And we're going to continue to make sure that we work with the RCMP to enact those things."

The RCMP Act says the commissioner serves "under the direction of the minister" and "has the control and management of the force."

'They've been fighting about this for 50 years'

Brian Sauvé, head of a union representing more than 20,000 RCMP officers, said he thinks Lucki is acting within her authority in retaining the carotid hold as an option for officers.

"There's been a lot of talk last year, for example, about operational independence of the RCMP. Use of force, the Incident Management Intervention Model, in my opinion, would fall within that operational independence," he said in an interview last week.

University of Ottawa criminology professor Michael Kempa disagrees.

"The answer is an unambiguous no. It is absolutely the responsibility of the RCMP to take policy direction from the minister of public safety on any matter to do with policies around recruitment, using force, weapons, etc.," he said.

"This is a problem that has bedevilled the RCMP and its relationship with their minister of public safety… They've been fighting about this for 50 years as to what exactly operational independence means."

Kempa described the power of the federal minister over the RCMP commissioner as equivalent to the power of police services boards over municipal police services.

The force's operational independence was thrust into the spotlight last summer when the federal government was accused of pressuring Lucki to have the Mounties release the types of weapons used by the gunman in the tragic mass shooting in Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead in 2020.

Both Lucki and former public safety minister Bill Blair have denied political interference.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

During last year's public inquiry into the government's use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protests, Lucki suggested the federal government should more clearly define operational independence.

"For me, it's pretty clear. Anything operational, we're advising what's happening, but we're not taking direction on how to do things," she testified on Nov. 15.

Lucki's contract is up for renewal 

Historically, disagreements between the federal government and the RCMP don't end well for the commissioner, said Kempa.

"In the end they're either dismissed or simply their contract is not renewed," he said.

"I think that rather than make a big public scene over this particular issue, if it's important to the minister, it would just be one more reason to not renew the contract and kind of deal with it quietly in that way."

Lucki was appointed commissioner back in April 2018. While the RCMP Act states commissioners hold office at the government's "pleasure," most commissioners serve for about six years.

In November, Mendocino said he would be talking to the commissioner "as her current defined term comes to its natural conclusion."

"And we'll see where that takes us."