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Editorial: RCMP must ensure troubled officers get help

(Editorial, Calgary Herald) – The most notable aspects of the fatality report into the RCMP shooting of Darren Varley in 1999 are not the dry recommendations on police procedure during arrests. Securing firearms in prisoner processing areas, surveillance cameras in all RCMP detachments, recommendations for timely backup when police are on duty alone, the need to hire strong, young people as jail guards rather than senior citizens — these are things that can be fixed, and some have already been addressed. It is not so easy to repair a human being.

The officer who shot the intoxicated, 26-year-old Varley, Const. Michael Ferguson, was a lit fuse. The report paints a picture of a law enforcement professional with an explosive temper. Five of the report’s 24 pages deal with Ferguson’s ongoing anger management problems, which were “not dealt with in a timely and effective manner.”

One female member of Ferguson’s RCMP detachment told superiors she did not feel safe working with him. Several fellow members said he was anti-francophone. Others described him as “infantile” and “totally out of control.” His performance log contained an entry that read: “The secretarial staff and some of the members are uncomfortable in the presence of Constable Ferguson because he may explode and lose his temper at any time.” He once got into a physical confrontation with a firearms instructor when both were in possession of loaded guns.

The fatality report recommends that “all complaints with respect to the actions of RCMP members be investigated promptly, thoroughly and in accordance with timelines.” The Mounties say they now have systems in place to track and deal with volatile members to prevent “this sort of profoundly sad circumstance from happening again.”

Ferguson is retired and coping with depression after serving two years of a four-year sentence for manslaughter. Had he received treatment for his anger issues, and possible reassignment, Varley might be alive today. Ferguson testified that Varley went for his gun while in a holding cell. There were no witnesses. The sole guard on duty did not see it, and neither did two prisoners.

Ferguson shot Varley in the abdomen and the head. He had arrested the intoxicated Varley after a physical confrontation at a hospital that several witnesses said Ferguson initiated. One witness, a former guard at the Pincher Creek RCMP detachment, stated that Ferguson told a belligerent Varley, “I don’t like drunks,” before grabbing Varley by the coat and punching him in the face and stomach, circumstances that other witnesses confirmed.

Fatality reports do not assign blame, but this one says Ferguson “aggravated the situation by his behaviour at the hospital.”

Policing is stressful work. We hope the RCMP has better control over members with behavioural issues, as it now insists. The consequences are too great to fail.

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Categories: Broken Force, Death While In Custody, Excessive use of Force, Mounties Breaking The Law, Mounties Charged, Senior Management.

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