The RCMP's "Mr. Big" Sting Operation: A Case Study in Police Independence, Accountability and Oversight

Article excerpt

The difficult question of how to balance police independence with accountability and oversight has received considerable attention recently, most often following events wherein it was feared that government exerted too much control over police operations. This is especially apparent in the context of public protests, such as the 1997 APEC Summit in Vancouver and the Ipperwash incident in Ontario (see Stenning 2000; Roach 2007; Sossin 2007). Other events, such as the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport and the subsequent Braidwood Inquiry into the actions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers on the scene or police actions at the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, have led to calls for greater accountability for police brutality. However, in Canada and elsewhere, less attention has been paid to the proper balance between independence and accountability in the context of more general police policies surrounding the investigation of crime. This is particularly true of undercover of operations, perhaps because of their inherently secretive nature (Joh 2009).

This paper explores the use of the RCMP's "Mr. Big" undercover tactic as a case study of police independence and accountability in the context of "routine" policing, as opposed to the policing of highly public events and protests. This distinction is important, as routine policing is not subject to the same level of media commentary and scrutiny, compared to high-profile protest policing such as that which occurred at the G20 Summit.

Developed to elicit confessions, the Mr. Big technique involves the use of several undercover officers who pose as high-ranking members of a criminal organization. These officers befriend their target (the suspect in a murder investigation), gaining their trust through cash, women and alcohol. The officers then involve their targets in fake criminal acts that give the appearance of physical assaults, money laundering, drug trafficking and mafia-style executions, in order to demonstrate the power of the criminal organization. Once trust is solidified between the target and the undercover officers, the target is introduced to the crime boss, Mr. Big, who demands that the suspect admit to the crime (usually murder) to establish credibility and to protect the organization against future surprises. Legal, financial or other benefits are promised by the organization in return (McIntyre 2006). If the target does not comply, he or she will endure the wrath of Mr. Big. The technique has been used hundreds of times so far at significant cost. The RCMP argues that the technique is very successful. (1) Defence attorneys, civil rights groups and those advocating on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, however, contend that post-offence undercover tactics can induce innocent people to falsely confess to crimes.

Although police forces in Australia have recently asked the RCMP for advice on implementing this kind of investigative technique, several other countries, such as England, the United States and Germany, essentially prohibit the use of Mr. Big-style tactics. The existence of rules that discourage this particular kind of policing operation in other countries raises empirical and theoretical questions. We became interested in whether the RCMP's tactic is subject to any oversight by judicial, executive or legislative bodies in Canada. This empirical question is closely related to theoretical and normative questions regarding the existence of oversight and accountability mechanisms and the extent of such safeguards in this type of undercover policing technique. Would it be best to leave operational decisions to the police or is it legitimate for other state actors to set general policy about such police operations given their nature and potential consequences? In examining these questions, this article hopes to contribute to a growing comparative literature on undercover operations, which is moving away from a narrow interest in the legal liability of the investigators and the accused to a concern for regulating criminal procedure undergirded by "questions about institutional competence, compatibility with constitutional values, and the relative merits of different mechanisms for oversight and control" (Ross 2008b: 242). …