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Embarrassing Setbacks : Mounties: Truly Macho or a Myth?

November 24, 1987|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

TESLIN, Canada — To Charles McVey, this tiny village in the Yukon Territory was a fugitive's delight. A hundred miles from the nearest town of any size, it was isolated and private, a place to indulge his passion for fishing without fear that anyone would realize that he was one of the U.S. government's most-wanted criminals.

So McVey, who was being sought for illegally selling billions of dollars worth of Western-made high technology to the Soviet Bloc, was not worried last August when a blue-uniformed police officer sat down next to him in Teslin's only restaurant. He had been coming here for 29 years, and no one had paid him any mind.

But Cpl. Daniel Fudge was not just any police officer. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the force that always gets its man, and there was something familiar about the diner on the next stool, something that struck Fudge as odd.

Old-Fashioned Police Work

That feeling led Fudge to do some checking, and after some old-fashioned police work, Fudge arrested McVey. No computers, no electronic tracking devices, no sting operations. Just one cop tracking a fugitive.

It was a Mountie operation that would have made the Royal Canadian Mounted Police publicists proud. Like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Fudge had lived up to the RCMP's official French motto-- "Maintiens le Droit " ("Uphold the Right")--and its unofficial code: The Mounties always get their man.

Sadly, Fudge's derring-do is increasingly rare these days, because the Mounties do not always get their man. In fact, say its critics, this famous police force, with its public image of tall, lean, scarlet-coated men on horseback or dog sled, stalking desperadoes through the wilderness, could probably do with a little less Sgt. Preston and a lot more computers and bureaucratic organization.

Series of Setbacks

The Mounties are suffering as never before. They have failed to solve several major crimes, including the June, 1985, terrorist bombing of an Air-India jet bound from Montreal to Bombay that killed 329 people; an attack on the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa, and a number of white-collar offenses involving government officials.

The force is at odds with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which was created in 1984 after a government investigation found that the RCMP had abused its power, a situation that, according to some politicians and attorneys, still has not been dealt with adequately.

Several RCMP members and former members say privately that morale is low because of limited advancement opportunities, because of the force's remote leadership and because of a recruiting policy that ignores the best-qualified in order to fulfill quotas aimed at increasing the number of women and French-speakers.

The force even seems to have trouble learning how to shoot straight--literally. Four Mounties have shot themselves accidentally this year after being equipped with a new weapon.

As a result of all this, the Mounties have been subjected to unprecedented criticism and investigation. Government commissions have disclosed a variety of errors, omissions and even illegal actions over the past decade.

Yet interviews with Mounties, with lawyers and government officials, make it clear that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is still the most respected public institution in Canada. As RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster told a reporter, "We continue to enjoy public support, so we must be doing something right."

Perhaps, but not according to Edward Greenspan, one of Canada's best-known criminal defense attorneys.

'A Great Myth'

"The Mounties are a great myth," Greenspan said. "They are a Hollywood myth. They dress well and have created a romantic image, but they are no better than any another large police force, and in many ways they are worse, even dangerous."

Although he comes to a different conclusion, even Inkster gives the myth of the near-perfect Mountie credit for much of the public acclaim. At his headquarters at the edge of Ottawa, the 49-year-old commissioner told of the American Indian Chief Sitting Bull and several hundred of his followers crossing into Canada after the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was confronted by two Mounties who told him he could stay if he behaved peacefully and obeyed the law.

"Sitting Bull looked at the two Mounties and asked where were the troops to back up the statement," Inkster said. "The Mountie pointed to a nearby hill and said there were two other policemen in reserve. That was all he needed."

When asked if the story was true, Inkster laughed as if to indicate it really didn't matter. And in many ways it probably doesn't.

Robert Kaplan, a Liberal Party member of Parliament who was the RCMP's political master as solicitor general under former Prime Ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and John Turner, said: "They (the Mounties) are not just a police force. They are a very important national institution, even an incomparable one. Where else (but Canada) do kids buy police dolls?"

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