Op-ed by David Neufeld & Professor Rosemary Ricciardelli
Earlier today, Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli and I had the opportunity to share key insights into Canada’s first ever exploration of occupational stress injuries among Detachment Services Assistants (DSAs) working for the RCMP.
These women (and increasingly men) have been the backbone of nearly every RCMP detachment across the country, serving as the first point of contact with the public, orienting countless new and tenured Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers, as well as providing crucial operational support for emergency responses, criminal background checks, investigations, and RCMP databases. Public safety requires a team, and these DSAs serve Canadians every day.
In their qualitative study, led by leading public safety researcher Professor Ricciardelli and colleagues, they found that DSAs, despite the reality of being so heavily relied upon, have often felt invisible, poorly supported, and undertrained to do the essential work without which no RCMP Detachment in the country could literally function.
It’s not a story unique to policing—all first responders are dependent on the largely invisible crew who mobilize behind them.
While class action suits have attempted to address the pain and suffering that women in particular have endured in their capacity as officers, civilian RCMP employees, public servants, volunteers, and even students, they have not always captured the complex experiences of DSAs.
These employees, though not first responders, are hugely influential in terms of the day-to-day work of the RCMP in communities. Uniformed officers are heavily dependent on DSAs for the effective operation of any Detachment.
DSAs interact with highly distressed members of the public, they often transcribe victims and witness statements, and view graphic images from violent incidents. In many small communities, DSAs frequently know the victim and/or their family—bringing it very close to home.
Yet their essential role within the organization is often disregarded by uniformed officers, access to mental health supports are fleeting and training opportunities are little to non-existent.
At its heart, improving the experience of these largely female employees is about breaking down hierarchies in a paramilitary organization which pits employees against each other on the basis of uniform, gender, race, sexuality, and occupational roles. Time and again, this creates the conditions for poor treatment, dysfunction and can exacerbate occupational stress injuries, including PTSD.
Professor Ricciardelli’s team’s research found that in the current climate, without concrete steps to ensure consistent and comprehensive training for DSAs, including for things as critical as updating criminal databases, undertaking criminal background checks, as well as resources to respond to direct and vicarious trauma, DSAs are at risk for occupational stress injuries, just like uniformed Members.
Notably, when a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing takes place as a result of a shooting, assault, natural disaster, vehicle collision, or other emergency, the CISM often excludes the one person keeping the Detachment going, the DSA.
Unarmed DSAs are also the most likely to interact with the public in these Detachments—but don’t always work with the benefit of protective glass. They need it urgently. These two measures alone will help to vastly improve the morale of DSAs. National RCMP training standards in the face of a rapidly changing landscape will also go a long way to better equipping these front line personnel.
The good news is that Commissioner Brenda Lucki, though she has had her share of bumps, is bringing tenacious new leadership as she attempts to positively shift a 150 year old organization, despite the organization’s tremendous baggage.
Advancing the well-being of all of the RCMP’s employees—in and out of uniform—is clearly crucial. Why? Because an RCMP equipped for the future is one that sees that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, Canada’s national police force will continue to be besieged with occupational stress, conflict and controversy. As the RCMP’s permanent first female Commissioner, Lucki is well equipped to bring real change. She has sat with DSAs to better hear their concerns and commit to action. She increasingly gets the organization from top to bottom. It is now time to ensure that investments in its transformation allow every employee to thrive.