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RCMP shelved hundreds of organized-crime cases after terror attacks

An RCMP intervention team run next to a Parliament building in Ottawa in this Oct. 22, 2014 file photo. Massive RCMP counterterrorism redeployments started in October, 2014 – the month that a terrorist gunman shot dead a Canadian Forces soldier, before being killed while storming Parliament.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The RCMP sidelined more than 300 investigations, mostly into organized-crime, as it redirected more than $100-million to its national-security squads after two Canadian soldiers were killed by Islamic State sympathizers.

The figures come from government records obtained by The Globe and Mail under Access to Information laws and speak to how big of a bite the force's counterterrorism contingent has been taking out of its traditional law-enforcement work.

These massive RCMP redeployments started in October, 2014 – the month that a terrorist gunman shot dead a Canadian Forces soldier, before being killed while storming Parliament.

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That dramatic attack, and a similar one days earlier in Quebec, sparked a major shift in the kinds of detective work done within Canada in the months and years that followed.

Proponents of the RCMP's pan-Canadian policing model often tout the organization's unique ability to scale up operations to blitz a suspected threat. Yet that approach can severely disrupt other kinds of detective work done under the force's sprawling mandate, potentially causing organized-crime suspects, such as drug smugglers and human traffickers, to be overlooked.

"Somebody decided that we have to prevent things from going 'boom' at any and all costs, so that's where all the resources are going," says Christian Leuprecht, a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

Mr. Leuprecht, a long-time police watcher who this month released a report highlighting weaknesses in the RCMP's structure, argues that police could have much more efficiently managed the counterterrorism work. That way, he argues, Mounties could have kept more of a focus on other obligations, such as policing borders or managing a growing opioid crisis.

But instead, "we yank Mounties and budgets around to wherever we think is the biggest tactical and political priority of the day," Mr. Leuprecht says.

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For any large police force, counterterrorism cases are a conundrum. Police are directed to pre-empt possible threats rather than simply respond to past crimes. Police commanders are under severe pressure to forestall the possibility of any attack, even if it means ratcheting back on other investigations.

In internal briefing notes from 2015, Public Safety Canada – the federal department that oversees the RCMP – highlighted how this logic had started resulting in understaffed organized-crime cases at a pivotal time.

"Since the terrorist attacks in Canada in October, 2014, high-priority, national-security investigations have diverted resources away from organized-crime investigations, including those focused on major drug trafficking and money laundering," reads one such note. It adds that the RCMP's bolstering of the terrorism file resulted in "approximately 320 other federal investigations being put on hold."

This high number of cases pushed to the back burner – it's not clear how many have resumed since – has been mentioned publicly before. In a March, 2015, CBC interview, then-RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson spoke to it, but glossed over the specific tradeoffs being made. "I think we've sidelined about 321 significant criminal investigations outside of counterterrorism," he said. "And that is going to have an effect in time."

Yet the Public Safety Canada briefing materials put the tradeoffs in somewhat sharper relief, suggesting that the RCMP was ceding ground to organized-crime groups emerging as a "growing threat," and whose crimes "threaten the very fabric of Canadian society."

Specifically, the briefing packages highlighted a growing $78-billion black market in Canada for drugs, tobacco, mortgage frauds and human trafficking. They also pointed out how drug offences were slowly rising and the consequences becoming more dire, with hundreds of Canadians dying each year because of overdoses from fentanyl and other powerful opioids.

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Public Safety Canada pointed out that old-school Mafioso and motorcycle gangs remained big problems in this realm, but the department also assessed that the complexity of organized crime was vastly increasing because of the growing popularity of the so-called Dark Web. Essentially, police had no easy answer for a growing number of anonymous, illicit Internet transactions that evade traditional police-wiretapping techniques.

The RCMP manages all manner of big crime investigations in Canada. While much of its federal-policing staff and funding were redirected after the 2014 attacks, such reallocations have been a chronic issue ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes in the United States.

In fact, during this 16-year period, about $300-million of RCMP funds once earmarked for other programs were diverted to the force's "integrated national-security squads" (INSETs), according to statistics released to The Globe.

The "internal reallocations" are a practice that plain-spoken police observers sometimes refer to as "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Over all, the INSETS spent about three times as much money as they were budgeted to spend. These overruns occurred even while similar RCMP squads – notably white-collar market-enforcement teams – often never came close to spending their annual allotments.

The INSETS were allotted budgets of $10-million each year shortly after they were created in the early 2000s and soon started overrunning these budgets by hundreds of thousands of dollars. By a decade later, the overruns had increased consistently by $15-million to $20-million, and in 2014 and 2015, after the terrorist attacks that killed the soldiers, the INSETs were overspending by $50-million each year. Last year, the overrun was reduced to $40-million.

In a June interview with The Globe, RCMP Deputy Commissioner of federal policing Gilles Michaud spoke of his hopes to refocus detectives on outlaw bikers, money laundering and cybercrime investigations. He disavowed strategies of fighting terrorists with police blitzes. "You divert 100 or so police officers to national security … right out of the gate, they are not as effective as they could be because it's a new world for them."

The killings of the two Canadian Forces soldiers occurred after Parliament voted to send war jets abroad to join the U.S.-led coalition bombing the Islamic State. The first Islamic State-inspired attacker fatally struck a soldier in Quebec with his car. The second attacker, who struck days later, shot a soldier at Ottawa's National War Memorial. Both attackers were shot dead by police.

Canada has never suffered a mass-casualty terrorist attack inspired by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State – though some such plots have been thwarted by the RCMP and its partner agencies. Last year, a would-be suicide bomber nearly managed to perpetrate an attack before being killed by Mounties at his London, Ont., area home.

With a report from Molly Hayes

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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