Bob Stenhouse was a cop’s cop—until he broke the code and blew the whistle on the RCMP
Mountie honour comes in many forms. At the top of the heap is regimental pride, the sometimes
starchy red-suited kind that makes its nod to history and can put the RCMP on a pedestal when compared with other police. Then there is what police psychologists call “the inner badge,” a personal, perhaps exaggerated, code of right and wrong that can set individual officers apart and embolden some to stand up even to their
own organizations. To those who know him, Bob Stenhouse has an inner badge polished to a fine hue: he’s strong-willed, dedicated, honest to a fault. Talk to him even for a short while or visit the Mountie room in his modest Edmonton bungalow, the guest room with the walls festooned with regimental memorabilia and commenda-
tions, and it’s clear he has that other stuff as well. It’s a potent mix. Bring it to a boil and you get that rare officer in a culture marked for its conformity—an RCMP whisde-blower.
He is not the only one. A week ago, in an Ottawa hearing room, Cpl. Robert Read, 57, another veteran Mountie with 26 years
on the force, went before a disciplinary board, charged, like Stenhouse, with disgraceful conduct and breach of oath for talking out of school. The two cases are not exacdy alike. Read, the fourth officer sent to investigate allegations that Chinese gangs had corrupted immigration officials at the Canadian Embassy in Hong Kong, became so angry after his findings were swept aside that he publicly charged senior officers with a coverup and released elements of an internal report to the media. Staff Sgt. Stenhouse, frustrated by years of
trying to get intelligence officers and drug squads to work together against biker gangs, sent a batch of police policy documents to a Toronto journalist in the hope of starting a public debate.
Read was the first of the two whisde-blowers to be suspended. Stenhouse was the first to go through the sausage machine that is the RCMP’s disciplinary
process. Together they may—eventually—set new standards for Mounties who go public with their concerns. “Some say police have a higher duty to keep confidential information and respect orders,” observes David Yazbeck, Read’s Ottawa lawyer. “But the law imposes a variety of obligations on police. You can argue it is
precisely because he is an officer that, at the end of the day, his duty is to the public.” Mind you, higher duty is cold comfort when the force you have served with distinction turns on you with very little in the way of compassion or understanding. If you are Bob Stenhouse, you hold on to that inner badge for all it’s worth. It’s something not even the RCMP, symbol of all that is right and lawful, can take away. The question in the Stenhouse case: why would it want to?
Stenhouse was one of the RCMP’s shiniest stars. He joined the force in 1982, barely out of his teens, and fairly shot through the ranks. Staff sergeant while still in his 30s, a significant achievement, he garnered performance reviews that characterized him as “outstanding” or “exceptional,” of leadership calibre. What’s more, he earned his spurs the hard way, on the streets. Stenhouse was one of the Mounties’ top undercover specialists in Western Canada. He had the personality to befriend suspected murderers and get them to cough up their secrets. Once, playing a mobbed-up tough guy, he tricked a smalltime killer into showing where he had stashed a body, deep in the bush in central British Columbia.
Stenhouse also had the guts to wade into a bar full of bikers—his special target— and put them on notice. A cop’s cop? He certainly looked the part. Big, raw-boned, soft-spoken. After receiving special assault training early on, he was part of the team that would be called out at all hours, anywhere in north-central Alberta, whenever someone was barricaded in a house with a rifle: given the order, he was one of the guys who would storm the house.
But it was not just his brawn or his courage that moved him through the ranks. A colleague called him one of the Mounties’ foremost experts on undercover police work. He also organized, on his own initiative, seminars for officers in outlying regions on how to deal with bikers. He had a knack for challenging his subordinates— and his superiors. In the year and a half leading up to his suspension, he had confrontations with three different senior officers about how to handle bikers. Though that didn’t stop two of them from writing laudatory memos as Stenhouse went through the processes for promotion.
His future looked bright. In 1997, he
quarterbacked one of the RCMP’s very few successful investigations of a biker gang. Called Project Kiss, it was an elaborate sting that went on for nearly a year and resulted in the conviction of 13 Edmonton bikers and the confiscation of $ 1 million in drug money. Then he did, by his own admission, a very stupid thing.
In the spring of 1999, with his marriage crumbling and his job frustrations mounting, Stenhouse sent a package of RCMP policy documents to Toronto journalist Yves Lavigne. The package included letters from fellow officers criticizing the force’s way of handling investigations into motorcycle gangs, then considered the RCMP’s No. 1 law-enforcement priority. One was a memo Stenhouse himself had written, arguing for more coherent, targeted investigations into suspected
gangs—instead of the turf-based system that divided the force into intelligence gatherers and criminal investigators. (And further divided the drug squad into units based on commodities such as marijuana and heroin, with the result that cops were chasing after small-timers with drugs in their possession rather than focusing on the kingpins.)
Another, more contentious part of the package, marked “confidential” and “for police eyes only,” included memos and minutes of meetings of the national strategy committee to combat outlaw motorcycle gangs, a policy-making group of the
Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
Stenhouse and Lavigne had never met, but they had talked on the phone several times. Stenhouse saw Lavigne as a friend of the police: he had written three books on the Hells Angels and spoken at police functions. And he felt Lavigne would use the documents as background, as an aid to understanding the frustrations of frontline officers. “It never crossed my mind he would publish them the way he did,” says Stenhouse. When the memos hit the fan, Mountie honour forced him to ’fess up.
Within hours of Lavigne’s book Hells Angels at War hitting the stands in October, 1999, Stenhouse sent e-mails to superiors and fellow officers oudining what he had done. “I didn’t want someone else taking the blame for this,” he says. The Internal rumour mill was already pinning the rap
on someone else. Close colleagues were shocked. So were his superiors. There may be consequences, they told him, but for the meantime continue on. In this instance, oddly enough, that meant going forward as a candidate for management ranks.
Then, three months later, everything suddenly changed. Stenhouse was suspended from duty. That is still his status two years later. The RCMP has tried (and failed) twice to suspend him without pay—an extremely rare initiative. It also tried to charge him with a criminal offence, only to be told by the Alberta justice department there were no grounds. And
earlier this spring, the force held a disciplinary hearing in Edmonton, one that went on for 10 days over a seven-week period, heard from almost 25 witnesses, and in the end—in very harsh and uncompromising terms—ordered Bob Stenhouse dismissed, an order he is appealing more for reasons of honour than anything else.
There are two stories here, and sometimes they intertwine. One is the personal tale of the burned-out Mountie, the overcommitted officer whose life was the force—he had married a Mountie, all his close friends are police officers—and who lost sight, perhaps, of how to go about changing an institution he loved. There is also the story of the RCMP’s failed attempt to get a handle on organized crime—particularly outlaw motorcycle gangs, the scourge of the ’90s. That’s a policy that is
even now spinning around 180 degrees, towards a vision of policing that Stenhouse, among others, has been advocating, ironically as the RCMP tries to drum him out of the force.
Part of that is due to changed circumstances: the new fight against international terrorism has forced the Mounties to combine their intelligence gatherers and criminal investigators into single targeted units aimed at specific groups. But even before, the wheels were turning in that direction. “This was something that was being talked about at a lot of different levels,” says Don McDermid, the recently
retired assistant commissioner who headed the RCMP’s Alberta operation. “Were we on the right track with that in Alberta? Maybe not to the point that everybody was doing it. But you don’t make a shift of that magnitude overnight.”
From outside law enforcement, it’s tempting to see the police as looking after their own, either to close ranks in support or to root out with a vengeance those who are considered bad apples. The Stenhouse case is not nearly so clear-cut. If anything, it shows the class divisions that bedevil the national force, divisions between what one officer calls, half-jokingly, “the cowboys” on the front lines and the “admin wienies.” One after another, officers who worked directly with Stenhouse, including long-serving investigators from his
earlier posting in B.C., appeared before his disciplinary hearing to sing his praises.
Did the documents he passed along compromise police operations? Not at all, they said. Has the leak affected their ability to share information with other forces? No again. “I found Bob to be a character person with the RCMP, a person with guts,” said his former boss on the biker intelligence team, retired Staff Sgt. Del Huget. “If he ever made an error in judgment, he would certainly get my forgiveness in a second. And I believe he should get that kind of forgiveness from the force.”
On the opposite side were a handful of
senior officers in the Edmonton detachment, some of whom were directly or obliquely criticized in the Lavigne book. But their points were still valid: Stenhouse betrayed his colleagues; some of these documents were clearly marked for police eyes only—some were from sister organizations, a measure of inter-force co-operation that was delicate at the best of times; how can we trust him again?
Oddly enough, the main antagonist in this drama was a non-Mountie: Toronto police Chief Julian Fantino. A big, Huffman who has headed three southern Ontario forces, Fantino was also chairman of the police chief’s strategy committee against outlaw bikers, the group that came together in 1996 shordy after an 11-yearold bystander was killed during the longraging biker wars in Quebec.
When an RCMP investigator faxed him sections from the Lavigne book in January, 2000, and told him an internal inquiry was under way, Fantino blew his stack. It was, apparendy, the first time he had been made aware of the leak; he fired off a hard-hitting letter that same day to Philip Murray, then commissioner of the RCMP. Under a bold headline—“Deeds speak”— Fantino called the leak one of the most corrupt acts he’d witnessed in 30 years of policing. Within days, Stenhouse was suspended and, for months after, in almost every internal report, the RCMP incorporated Fantino’s views.
Bikers, of course, have bedevilled police for years. Indeed, since the national strategy group was formed, the largest of these gangs, the Hells Angels, has moved into every major province where it didn’t already have a foothold—Alberta in 1997, and subsequently Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario—taking over rival gangs and their livelihood in what police call a “patchover,” a sharing of insignias. And as Stenhouse was arguing with his superiors, drugs were the mainstay of motorcycle gangs. (Quebec’s recent crackdown has proved this in spades.) But because drug squads and biker intelligence units were two different groups with two different agendas, co-ordinated attacks on motorcycle gangs foundered. “It’s always been like this within the RCMP,” Stenhouse says. “ ‘We’re drug enforcement. We’re customs and excise.’ And within drugs, ‘we’re heroin. We’re marijuana.’ It’s all about turf
and that’s why the Hells Angels have fallen through the cracks for 20 years.”
The conclusion of Project Kiss in the fall of 1997 should have been a time of sweet victory for Bob Stenhouse. It was anything but. His marriage was disintegrating, he was despondent from job stress, and his frustration that front-line officers did not have greater input into biker strategy was so great, he handed in his resignation. Close friends talked him out of it. Then, a few months later, the RCMP sent him as its representative to a provincial policy committee on organized crime—which only started his cycle of frustration all over.
The committee, headed by a consultant and composed of representatives from the RCMP and the Edmonton and Calgary police, was struck because the Alberta government was withholding nearly $2 million in organized crime funding because it didn’t trust the feds to contribute their fair share. Stenhouse was on the committee to add an operational perspective, but what he saw only crystallized his view that there were deep-seated problems with funding and strategy. The RCMP was then saying it had budgeted $16.5 million and 183 people to combat organized crime in Alberta. But with only five full-time biker investigators in the province, the numbers looked like a shell game. More worrisome, to Stenhouse at least, was that the biker policy emanating from the police chiefs seemed more concerned with telling the media about the gangs than with frontline policing. “I just felt this was unethical,” he says now. “It seemed all about trying to get money from government.”
He started to write memos on how biker investigations ought to be organized. At least four of them went up the lines and were swatted back. They were his personal “wish list,” the disciplinary board called them later. From his point of view, they were a way of saying the force could do more with less, by combining priorities. (He was not alone in his concerns—at Stenhouse’s disciplinary hearing, senior RCMP officers from B.C. and Alberta, men with 15 to 20 years’ experience as criminal investigators, came forward to tell the same story, almost as a lament. Mountie pride was at stake. They were the national police after all. Yet because of their own internal battles and trying to do too much with too little, they were losing ground against bikers.)
In late December, 1998, Stenhouse went to see McDermid. They spoke for 90 minutes. The assistant commissioner seemed sympathetic. He acknowledged the force seemed too content to pick low-hanging fruit, and asked for more documentation. He said he’d see what he could do. A few months later, they met again in a corridor. Recollections differ. McDermid recalls saying change was coming but it would take time. Stenhouse says the message was more like business as usual. A week or so later, Yves Lavigne called, asking what was new.
Bob Stenhouse is not a stupid man.
Naïve, perhaps, about the ways of investigative journalists, maybe even about police budgets, but he knows the odds against him regaining his once-sterling career in the RCMP are extremely high. His
case now goes to an external review body for a recommendation, and then to the commissioner of the RCMP for the final say. That could take another year.
For a while during his suspension, he worked part time as a private investigator, until the RCMP retracted the permission it had initially given him. A month ago, taking a leave, he ran and lost a campaign to be an Edmonton municipal councillor. Ironically, for someone considered a disgrace to the uniform, he is still called upon to give evidence in court against people the Mounties are trying to put away.
His 20 years with the force are up in
January, after which he can retire with a partial pension. Maybe that is what the RCMP is hoping for, that this will all just go away quietly. That is not likely. This is a case that could well end up in Federal Court. This is a man who, after all, brought his 11-year-old son to hear him testify at the inquiry last spring. And who told the disciplinary board tearfully at the time of the sentencing: “I have heard the rhetoric that suspension is not punishment or discipline. Has anyone ever thought to ask a member who was suspended what they have been through? Has any thought been given to how I had to reassure family members and friends that I am not corrupt, I am not unethical, I am not dishonest?”
What stands out about this case, apart from the issue of dismissing an officer with
only one blemish on an otherwise stellar career, is how bureaucratic the RCMP can be when it goes after one of its own. Because Stenhouse had just transferred to an administrative unit when Lavigne’s book came out, the investigation and prosecution of his case was handled out of Regina, by senior officers who had barely—if ever—known him. The investigator who was brought in felt Stenhouse was hiding something and pursued the matter like a criminal case. His RCMP lawyer, Anita Szabo, had a note put on her file for answering reporters’ questions outside the inquiry.
And any written records about the case
by former commissioner Murray and his successor, then-deputy commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, were “no longer in existence,” the inquiry was told by the prosecution. “You ask who is in direct charge of this case?” says Supt. Brian Roberts, Stenhouse’s last supervisor and the RCMP’s main, though highly reluctant, spokesman on the case. “That’s a good question.” Roberts will say only that there are “several different persons having several different types of involvement” as the matter has progressed.
How damaging was the leaked material Stenhouse sent Lavigne? Even the disciplinary inquiry did not give much importance to the contents of what was leaked. In fact, it rejected Stenhouse’s legal claim to be considered a whistle-blower— which might have justified what he did—because it said most of what he passed on was already in the public domain. But Supt.
Guy LaFlamme, a no-nonsense veteran who ran the three-member inquiry with considerable latitude, concluded there are higher standards for police. Because they hold a public office and swear an oath of secrecy, that raises the bar. What’s more, Stenhouse’s transgression, LaFlamme said, requires a clear message of deterrence because it goes to “the core values” of what the RCMP is all about— honesty and integrity—and, furthermore, breaches the trust of fellow officers. “There is a legitimate need to publicly debate the general issue of OMGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs] and their effect on society,” LaFlamme concluded. “There is no need, however, to publicly debate the internal strategies and comments in a police organization engaged in this important endeavour.”
Another quirk to this case is that the author of the book has never acknowledged Stenhouse was a source. Yves Lavigne is a former Globe and Mail reporter in his late 40s, a highly secretive man who feels both police and bikers are after him for his contacts. Lavigne was interviewed by the RCMP about Stenhouse but he never appeared at the inquiry, and he refused to say
on principle whether Stenhouse was or was not a source. But he told Macleans that his book went to his publisher intact at the end of February, 1999—which is at least a month, maybe more, before Stenhouse says he sent him the documents— and that nothing but minor editing changes were made after that. Lavigne’s editor at HarperCollins Publishing Ltd. confirms the timing. But this new information only muddies the waters because at least two of the classified documents in the book were letters that had been sent
directly to Stenhouse by fellow officers and that he testified he passed on to Lavigne. The issue here, though, is not necessarily whether the Mounties got the right man. It is more whether the punishment fits the crime.
One of the problems with the current system is that the RCMP Act, a relic from another time, creates a maximum disciplinary punishment of up to 10 days’ pay. It jumps from there to dismissal on the finding that a breach of trust is so egregious as to affect the employer-employee relationship. Another problem: there is no federal whistle-blowing legislation as there is, for
example, in the United States, some of it governing police (although Ottawa has just created a new position, integrity officer, to handle complaints by civil servants of mismanagement and wrongdoing).
In recent years, a handful of high-profile whistle-blowers within the federal civil service have gained prominence, mostly scientists at Health Canada. Some cases went to Federal Court and, so far, the maximum penalty imposed has been a reprimand; in one case, the loss of five days’ pay. Until now, the RCMP has behaved similarly. Of the halfdozen cases involving breach of the oath of secrecy over the past decade, some involving officers who have leaked material to journalists, only one has led to dismissal—a Mountie who leaked information about a planned police raid, which, if it hadn’t been aborted, might have put officers at risk.
The Stenhouse decision clearly raises the bar, signalling a tougher approach—“accountability is the new watchword,” one Mountie involved in the case said—towards officers who talk out of turn. Of course, Stenhouse’s transgression sprang to light in the fall of 1999, just weeks after Cpl. Read went public with his allegations (after first submitting them to the RCMP public complaints commission, the federal auditor general and the spy agency CSIS before speaking to a reporter). The Mounties may have thought they had an epidemic of whistleblowers on their hands.
An alternative interpretation is that these prosecutions just roll along because, like biker policy, no one wants to take complete ownership of a problem that looks intractable. At least twice in the Stenhouse case, the RCMP made tentative offers to setde the matter outside of an inquiry. Stenhouse said he was interested, but wanted hill disclosure or mediation. He wanted to be met halfway, a prideful demand, perhaps, given what had transpired—though not at all out of character. He had given 20 years of his life to the RCMP Was it too much to ask for a little of his reputation back? IS]