Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Mar. 30, 2014)

Mr. Whatif

By Bob Cooper


If you haven’t seen this story on Global please read it and watch both the interviews with S/Sgt. Brent Baulkham and Assistant Commissioner Gilles Moreau before you read this column so you can form your own opinions.  Normally I’d just give you the Coles Notes version but these are worth watching.  I realize there may be other factors we’re not aware of but S/Sgt. Baulkham appears to be the type of high quality NCO who, despite his own pain, went out of his way to make things better for others and his loss to the RCMP seems very sad. 

Rising number of PTSD cases among RCMP costing taxpayers millions 

With PTSD at an all-time high and a Sick List longer than Rob Ford’s bar tab, I wondered why the RCMP would toss out 2 years of work on a concept that’s apparently worked very well in the military.  They’re in desperate need of good news stories and this program sounds like an absolute winner.  Getting rid of it?  Not a good news story.  A 1-800 number?  Really not a good news story.  Ask anyone who’s ever tried to contact the government, a bank, or their cell-phone provider. 

As soon as I heard A/Commr. Moreau use the word ‘liability’ I knew exactly what had happened because I’ve seen it happen before.  It would usually start with a group of us being assigned to find the solution to a problem.  We’d kick it around a bit and before long someone would come up with a nice, simple, common-sense answer.  We’d all look at each other thinking the same thing.  Let’s write this puppy up and get out of here.  They don’t expect us back for days and if we hurry we can tee off by 10 o’clock. 

Except for Mr. Whatif.  Mr. Whatif takes many forms but we’ve all known him.  The ever-cautious bureaucrat who searches for reasons not to do things.  In law enforcement he’s usually a ‘carpet cop’ but in this case I suspect he may have been a lawyer.  Mr. Whatif was a fixture at every meeting just like whiteboards or flipcharts and you knew a pearl of wisdom was coming because it was always preceded by an emphatic pause accompanied by some pseudo-intellectual gesture like staring intently around the room while moving his glasses down the bridge of his nose ever so slightly, taking the glasses off entirely for full effect, or sitting back in his chair and staring at the ceiling as if his words were coming with Divine inspiration.  Like one of those bogus exercises at the New Westminster Academy of Drama, otherwise known as the Assessment Center.  Portraying himself as the independent, outside the box thinker.  Then he’d say “Sounds good on its face but Whatif (giant meteor, earthquake, floods, famine, take your pick)?  I think we should run it by Risk Management and maybe send it up to Planning & Research”. 

Now Mr. Whatif’s pals really go to town and the idea will never see the light of day, at least not in any form you’d recognize.  First, they’ll complicate it beyond recognition to remove any possible element of risk however remote, then they’ll cleanse it of any trace of common sense, and finally, they’ll take it from a short, simple paragraph and turn it into a 9 page entry in the Regulation & Procedure Manual that will have to be memorized by the poor shmucks writing the Promotion Exam that year.  Arguing with Mr. Whatif is pointless and will just leave you branded as reckless fools. 

What this comes down to is that the RCMP are afraid some member is going to give another member a piece of bad advice that they’ll be on the hook for, and it’s far better to leave this stuff to professionals.  Firstly, professionals are as capable as anyone else of giving bad advice.  The guy at the bottom of his class at Med School is still called Doctor.  Many of the cops I knew who killed themselves were under the care of a professional when they did it.  I’m not in any way blaming the professional, I’m just saying that sometimes having letters behind your name is no guarantee of success.  Secondly, cops have been giving each other bad advice for centuries on everything including dating, cars, marriage, & investments (the latter usually being the worst – friendships survive the rest) but they will open up to other cops for the simple reason that they understand each other like no outsider ever could.  In most cases they don’t want advice or psychoanalysis.  They just want someone they know and trust to listen to them and reassure them that the sun will come up tomorrow and this too shall pass.

When someone is threatening to jump off a bridge they don’t get a ‘professional’ they get a cop.  If they’re lucky, the cop is a trained Negotiator.  If not, the cop does the best he or she can.  Negotiator training only started in the late 70s & early 80s but cops have been talking people off ledges since the days of Robert Peel partly because in an emergency everyone else defaults to them and partly because they’re good at talking to people.   If the guy jumps I wouldn’t think the liability would be much different but cops still climb up on that bridge to do it.

In addition to the ‘liability’ issue I suspect that management’s interests are better served by having members seen by third parties in the pay of the government rather than friends or colleagues who would tend to advocate for them.  Returning members to duty is the overarching goal here and we’ve all heard some incredible stories about phonies who should have been dropped in Depot who are just milking the system and doing so for years.  If all they do is get rid of these people I say good on them but when a process becomes one-sided it becomes open to abuse resulting in members being returned to duty before they’re ready or being released if their course of recovery isn’t viewed as cost-effective.

At present the RCMP are largely depending on a 1-800 number and web-based resources but a new program is on the way that will eliminate “informal groups” because “we are not in the treating business” (translation – your treatment’s been outsourced) and sounds typically very heavy on procedure.  The spectre of Obamacare looms large.  A/Commr. Moreau, citing his own experience, emphasized several times that the onus is on the member (and, by omission, not on the RCMP).  What a lot of members will hear is ‘You’re on your own.  Welcome to our new Self-Service Employee Assistance Facility’.  While I respect him for being able to recognize a problem & seek help for himself, many members in that situation either don’t realize it or are in denial and the onus is very much on the agency to be proactive.    

In a previous column on PTSD I wrote:

“As a responsible, compassionate employer the VPD takes a back seat to no one in looking after its people and help is available 24/7.  As evidence of how things have improved, over the space of a few years in the late 70s and early 80s, I knew 4 VPD members who committed suicide.  The VPD began taking a much more proactive approach and since then, timely intervention has prevented numerous tragedies, helped a lot of members deal with their problems and return to full duty, and the VPD did not experience another suicide for about 20 years.  But it only works if you ask.”

I recall thinking that the VPD went way overboard with counselling on occasion but looking back I now believe that it’s far better to err on the side of caution and the stats would tend to bear that out.  The VPD has internal issues like any other agency but in their model the people who do the heavy lifting at the outset are mostly serving members resulting in a much lower rate of PTSD and other absences. I was offered that help when a friend committed suicide even though I was retired and along with guys I used to work with, I went through a session run by serving members and a psychologist who was experienced in dealing with cops.  Later that evening the psychologist phoned me at home to make sure I was alright.  I’ll never forget that experience and the nicest part was knowing the job cared enough about us to reach out.   

I’m not saying there’s no place for professionals in the treatment process but there is most definitely a place for fellow members.  It’s certainly better than picking up the phone and hearing “All of our representatives are busy serving other clients.  Your call is important to us so please stay on the line blah, blah, blah”.



Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



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