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A Revolution in Canada’s Cops

By July 14, 2005 No Comments

For the last few decades, Canadian police have had to cope with an increasingly sophisticated criminal environment and severe technological challenges. Yet today’s police officer is now a part of a series of networks reaching through our entire society, and are far more likely to engage in predictive policing—getting ahead of problems before they manifest themselves. How was this done?

One of the maxims in the War on Terror is that “it takes a network to fight a network.” Most modern terrorist groups and criminal societies evolved into networks years ago, with loose cells clustered around specific localities or activities, and group reliance on shared backgrounds and common ethnic/cultural identities for socialization between these nodes. Traditional police and security approaches could only tackle one node at a time, seldom with decisive effect.

In the early 1960s, some Canadian police were already beginning to recognize the limitations of conventional approaches in tackling criminal societies. A meeting of Canada’s Attorney Generals in 1966 proposed to create a central clearinghouse for information on organized crime. By 1970 this had manifested in the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada (CISC) with a central bureau in Ottawa and nine provincial entities. The CISC has grown slowly, with every sign of the usual cautious reticence about public involvement that is typical of Canadian civil servants and senior police officers. Yet even as early as 1976, it led to the creation of the Automated Criminal Intelligence Information System, one of the world’s first police computer networks. The CISC gathers raw data and specific intelligence and pools it for further refinement and analysis.

Currently some 380 agencies and entities contribute to and make use of the CISC. The RCMP’s Commissioner heads the organization, and 22 representatives from other police forces with permanent intelligence units meet twice a year to steer the group, share new concerns, and direct new priorities.

The main focus of the CISC is on criminal societies and major criminal activities. Counter-terrorism is not a part of its usual brief or mandate, but there are many ways around this. The report for 2004 highlights the leaky security at Canada’s ports and airports, a situation that organized crime already capitalizes on, but also one which represents a risk from opportunistic terrorists. A central role for Canada in North American security also revolves around the Smart Border Initiative along the Canada-US border, and the CISC is expressing concerns about organized criminal activities on the border and supports the new Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) in countering them.

Some police intelligence units are large formal organizations and mirror the CISC in their own right. The Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario (CISO) is largely run by the Ontario Provincial Police, but has representation from several municipal and regional police forces. Others face complex jurisdictional environments in their localities—Halifax and Vancouver police have to contend with major rail and port facilities within their cities, which are often administered by federal laws and once had their own specialist agencies. Vancouver, like Montreal and Toronto, also have seen large suburbs evolve into cities in their own right, leading to a need to coordinate more closely with nearby municipal police forces than might be the case for Saskatoon, Saint John’s or Yellowknife.

The initial role of police intelligence services, particularly in cities, is to collect and collate data concerning criminal activities that occur on an ongoing basis. One of the usual functions of these groups, particularly after the formation of the CISC, was to liaise with other forces to facilitate the sharing of information. Most members were long time detectives or specialist investigators recruited from vice, narcotics and homicide squads. They also facilitated the internal transfer of information between such squads, which sometimes was not easily accomplished.

While the RCMP Security Service was concerned with foreign spies and members of hostile political groups within Canada (such as the Communist Party of Canada or the KKK) provincial and municipal police forces had no mandate to investigate these issues. Outside of Quebec, where police faced FLQ bombs throughout the 1960s, terrorism was barely on the mental horizon of most police.

In preparing for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, the memories of the massacre of athletes in Munich in 1972 loomed large. The RCMP was aware that Black September and other Palestinian groups were trying to stick their toes into Canadian waters as early as 1972. Police in our major cities were also coping with increased political violence from émigré communities and had learned from the European and American experience with radical leftist terrorists.

The 1985 Air India bombing and the takeover of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa proved instructive and more forces started to devote intelligence resources to potential sources of terrorism. An additional spur came from the growing activities of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). But while free to investigate a terrorist attack and treat it purely as a criminal matter, collecting material on Anarchists, ALF supporters, activists for the Khalsa movement or the Tamil Tigers was only incidental for most police forces. Without the authority and the legal tool kit to act against terrorist groups, most could only collect material for background purposes.

Another development in police intelligence emerged from investigations into high profile serial offenders in the 1980s and ‘90s. Police were slowly learning the benefit of using multiple professional perspectives, particularly from the forensics side, in trying to uncover the habits of some serial killers to learn more about their behaviors and future patterns. Some vital pioneering work in this field came out of the geographical profiling methodology that was developed in British Columbia in the mid-1990s by the Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology in cooperation with the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP. This is one of several tools in suspect prioritization and data management that have emerged within the last decade in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain.

Another technique that emerged from organized crime and street-gang investigations in the U.S. has become widely accepted. Police intelligence agencies now start to map out the organization by taking known gang members or mobsters, and then charting out all of their movements and all of their social contacts. Eventually sufficient data enables analytical models to provide a picture of the larger network, and to identify pivotal figures who might have otherwise escaped the notice of the police.

The creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was the result of a lengthy inquiry into the RCMP’s Security Service, its long time intelligence branch. The whole history of the service has been recounted elsewhere, and someday the service might actually get the plaudits they often deserved, but it was clear that the federal government wanted to make a new start.

Since 1984, the agency has managed to mature as a security service. Between mishandling the Air India investigation, jurisdictional issues, and teething problems, there were numerous press reports about CSIS/RCMP infighting, even though both organizations report to the Solicitor General. But the seeds of a fruitful cooperation with police were planted with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act that mandated the creation of the organization and defined its powers. The act allows CSIS to enter into joint activities with Canadian police forces, with the oversight of the Special Intelligence Review Committee, and the various provincial attorneys general. It took a few years for the cops and CSIS to warm up to each other, especially as both tended to remain protective of their sources.

In the early 1990s, the police were starting to recognize the worth of networking through CISC and its satellite organizations, and were getting used to occasional inputs from CSIS. For the criminals, a major engine of growth was the black market in cigarettes, although the overall size of this industry at its height in 1993 was a fraction of that of the ongoing market in narcotics and illegal drugs. But the tobacco smuggling conduit across the Canada/U.S. border was also leading to a flood of illegal small arms inside Canada, most of which were ending up in the hands of an increasingly diverse criminal scene on our streets. Cops are invariably the first to recognize a new problem, and the flood of firearms triggered “Project Gun-Runner,” a collaborative investigation among five Ontario forces between 1992 and 1994.

The startling findings from Gun-Runner lead to the creation of Ontario’s Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit (PWEU) to try and tackle the problem. The unit was created as a subset of CISO and became a task force with involvement from the RCMP, OPP and numerous metropolitan/regional forces in the province.

The growing diversity of Canada’s criminal scene was also noted in the early 1990s. This also led to a proliferation of police task forces, oriented toward particular problems. Expertise especially with municipal police in some major cities and long- serving detachment commanders with the RCMP, led to a greatly increased appreciation between various police forces. The task forces were also holding seats open for representatives from Transport Canada, Canada Customs and Revenue, Immigration Canada and for occasional liaison officers from America. (Canadians should note that Customs and Immigration are now combined in a new Border Agency).

The rapidly accumulating experience in joint task forces would soon stand Canada in good stead. With the passage of Bill C-36 and a set of tough new anti-terrorism laws in early 2002, Canadian police had the go-ahead for even closer work with CSIS and started to aggressively develop intelligence on terrorism. One early spin-off was the creation of Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs). These combine police with assets and personnel from Transport Canada, National Defence, CSIS and the Border Agency. INSETs have been created in several Canadian provinces, particularly for work in major ports and other areas with complex jurisdictional environments.

Ontario has also seen the creation of the first JFO (Joint Force Operation) which again combines municipal, provincial and federal police with CSIS and input from other federal and provincial agencies. The JFO is mandated to undertake strategic intelligence work and is developing its own ‘human sources’ informers, to facilitate its own investigations. In Ontario, both the JFO and the CISO have also established regional task forces and a similar process is at work in other provinces.

PATS is another new acronym on the Canadian policing scene: Provincial Anti-Terrorism Sections. Most provinces have created them to work with their INSETs and IBETs. These preceded work on the new smart border initiative between Canada and the United States and combine a variety of Canadian and American agencies working as joint forces around critical border areas. The successes of the smuggling industry in the early 1990s are not likely to be repeated.

This alphabet soup of acronyms shows how Canadian police intelligence has been extensively re-organized in the last five years. Most major municipal and regional police now have reorganized their intelligence services to reflect the multi-agency task force concept. Some Canadian municipal police forces also have liaison officers from major American cities and vice versa. These networks of interlaced agencies at the federal, provincial, regional/municipal, and local levels are working in loose conjunction. The organized criminal and the terrorist/security-focused networks operate in loose tandem to add an extra dimension to their capabilities.

Canada’s police intelligence agencies at every level of government have become nodal points in overlapping networks, which share information and intelligence data on a timely basis and can work on joint investigations without any of the time consuming delays and obstructions that occurred so often in the past. Being a network-oriented structure, they can now be more flexible and responsive. To fight networked problems, the police have finally developed networks of their own.

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