The Pyschology of RCMP Tactics at Ts'peten

The following document was emailed to us by friends from an anti-racism group. It was originally posted in the RCMP bulletin, at

We are posting it here NOT because we agree with it, but because we think it is an important document in terms of breaking down the RCMP's psychological approach to the attack on the people at Ts'peten (Gustafsen Lake) in 1995.


- by Mike Webster, Ed.D., Registered Psychologist


Mike Webster is a registered psychologist in private practice, dealing exclusively with law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP and the FBI. He teaches at the British Columbia Police Academy, the Canadian Police College, and the FBI Training Academy at Quantico, Virginia. Dr. Webster was a psychological consultant to the FBI's Crisis Management Unit during the Branch Davidian barricade at Waco, Texas.

He is a former member of the RCMP.

In writing this article I am attempting to take the process and outcome of the Gustafsen Lake barricade and use it to demonstrate, to crisis managers, a powerful and effective crisis management philosophy. I think sufficient evidence has accumulated from the outcomes of incidents like Oka, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Ipperwash that we can at least question the process applied during those crises.

It seems that whenever a recalcitrant opponent refuses to come to agreement the natural human tendency is to abandon problem solving and embrace the use of force. That is, to abandon the quest for mutual satisfaction and pursue the path to victory. If the opposition won't do what we suggest it should, then we'll force it to do what we think it should.

The expectation behind the use of force is that we will threaten, coerce, or directly apply our force and the opposition will be so impressed they will capitulate, with a new found wisdom for the error of their ways. It is my observation that this rarely happens. Remember the Vietnamese and their response to the American application of force. Observe today in the former Yugoslavia or in Chechnya, the responses of the warring factions to each other's applications of force. These campaigns serve as models in support of the fact that unless one has a herculean advantage, the opposition usually hardens its resistance in response to an application of force.

Scarcity is a powerful motivator of human behaviour, as any collector can tell you. Whether it's baseball cards or the paintings of the great masters, the less available the item is the more valuable it becomes. Similarly, when we perceive our rights, control, or freedom being limited, we react by pursuing the threatened option even more, and perhaps even aggressing against who we perceive as the limiting agent. The less freedom, rights, or control we allow the opposition the more valuable it becomes to them and the more aggressively they will pursue it. Force now becomes counterproductive as it has driven the opposition into a defensive position where they will resist us with all they can muster.

The RCMP's crisis management team (CMT) at Gustafsen Lake anticipated that any early exercise of force would be perceived by the inhabitants of the encampment as an attempt to limit their autonomy. Moreover, this would increase the value of their autonomy, in their own eyes, and result in them pursuing it in an increasingly aggressive manner. The CMT did not want, through their own actions, to harden the resistance of those in the encampment and contribute to the very problem they were attempting to resolve.

The application of force is enveloped in a paradox. The more of it you apply in an effort to make it difficult for the opposition to resist, paradoxically, the more difficult you make it for them to comply by increasing the value of whatever option you limit. Following the application of force the opposition views agreement with increasing reluctance, as embracing it now resembles accepting defeat. Once the strategy of force is deployed there is no turning back. The opposition will have difficulty accepting your efforts to "talk it out" after you have tried to "take them out". We are now forced, if we are able, to impose a costly solution on our opponent. There is great potential for both sides to emerge as losers, rather than each of us coming out of the disagreement with at least some of what we wanted initially. To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, if we continue in the pursuit of an eye for an eye we all end up blind.

Even if the RCMP had successfully assaulted the inhabitants of the Gustafsen Lake encampment, could they have won the war? Have Waco and Ruby Ridge not become the rallying cries for the radical right in the U.S.? To date their names have been associated with at least the bombing in Oklahoma City and the train derailment in Arizona. I think that it is arguable that the RCMP would have destroyed their relationship with the First Nations people and that the latter would have found a way to retaliate when they secured a more powerful position. The eyes of the First Nations people across North America were on Gustafsen Lake. The RCMP showed far more power in vanquishing their opposition before they even took to the battlefield, than they could have, had they undertaken a tactical assault.

The Delicate Balance

The paradox of force itself is not problematic to the management of crisis situations. The problem derives from abandoning, out of frustration, problem solving negotiation and adopting solely the power strategy. The solution lies in utilizing them both. That is, making it easy for the opposition to agree with you at the same time you make it difficult for them to disagree. Making it easy to agree requires maintaining a problem solving negotiation, while making it difficult to disagree requires an exercise of your force. The CMT at Gustafsen Lake did not choose between the two. They executed them both conjointly.

The CMT treated the exercise of force as if it were an integral part of the problem-solving negotiation that was ongoing with the inhabitants of the encampment. They viewed the tactical side of the operation as that part of the balance designed to bring the opposition to the negotiation table. The tactical presence at Gustafsen Lake was utilized to bring the inhabitants of the camp to their senses not to their knees.

Force was used to educate. The people in the encampment refused to reach agreement because they were convinced they could win. The reasoned exercise of force (within the context of a problem solving negotiation) provided them with the opportunity to discover the consequences of no agreement. The RCMP imposed, in a unilateral manner, very little on the people in the encampment. The people, over several weeks, came to a decision, on their own, that was beneficial for both themselves and the RCMP.

Making It Easy To Agree

It is, I believe, the human tendency for us, out of frustration, to threaten and coerce when the opposition fails to see the benefits inherent in agreement. This, of course, most often leads to reactance and resistance, making agreement increasingly difficult. A more productive strategy requires influencing the opposition in the direction we would like it to go.

There were several tactics utilized by the RCMP in making it easy for the inhabitants of the Gustafsen Lake encampment to agree to cease their armed barricade. The CMT had a sure belief that both the surrounding native communities and the inhabitants of the camp had to be involved in the process. Any solution formulated single handedly by the RCMP was likely to be rejected by the First Nations people as they had no hand in crafting it. The CMT realized that problem solving negotiation is not just a mechanical exercise but a political process where both parties work together to shape an agreement. The CMT's goal was to create a long lasting and effective solution to the problem by providing First Nations involvement in and ownership of that solution. By working together the RCMP and the Shuswap-Okanagan Liaison Group were able to see things differently, make allowances where there had been none, and accept ideas once rejected. For example, the liaison group came to accept that as this was a criminal investigation, the RCMP would have to preserve its position of authority; and, the RCMP came to understand that being flexible enough to incorporate some of the liaison group's suggestions into their operational plan would increase their chances for success. The process included the CMT working extensively with the Shuswap-Okanagan Liaison Group, who in turn worked with the people in the encampment.

The CMT believed that it was important to satisfy unfulfilled concerns and basic needs. The people in the encampment had deeply rooted needs for recognition, security, identity, and autonomy. If ignored and left unmet these needs could have obstructed agreement. The CMT attempted to meet these needs by providing legal counsel, elders, medicine men, and members of the Shuswap Okanagan Liaison Group. The latter group was able to address several issues of concern to those in the encampment including legal counsel, ongoing community support, and a more effective way of resolving their concerns for aboriginal title in British Columbia.

A vital part of making it easy for the people in the encampment to reach agreement was to provide them with a way to save face. Facesaving lies at the heart of the negotiation process. It is difficult for the opposition to agree with you when they are concerned with how that agreement will make them look to others. The RCMP's success at Gustafsen Lake had much to do with their ability to save the faces of those in the encampment.

This was accomplished by emphasizing that circumstances had changed since they had embarked upon their armed barricade. Their lawyer had proven himself to be an unreliable vehicle for their aboriginal land title concerns and that some other method would probably increase the chances of their success. Additionally, ample use of third party intermediaries, an effective face saving technique, was made. Proposals that may have been unacceptable coming from the RCMP were far more palatable coming from respected elders and medicine men. The people in the encampment were able to come to agreement not because the RCMP said they must but because a respected member of their own community suggested it.

Finally, in an effort to make it easy to agree, the CMT took their time. They realized that agreement would be difficult for the opposition. Too many decisions and too many changes were being pushed for in too short a time. The CMT simplified the process by breaking it into tasks and then striving for agreement on the easier tasks first. For example, an agreement on a cease fire was established, followed by an agreement to strive for a mutually satisfying solution to the problem well before issues like exchanges and surrender were ever discussed. The CMT relied on the human tendency to infer personal characteristics like attitudes and beliefs from observing our own actions. If the inhabitants of the encampment observed themselves agreeing with the RCMP, even on smaller issues, they would be more likely to view themselves as able to agree with the RCMP on larger issues.

Making It Difficult To Disagree

In utilizing the tactics outlined in the foregoing section the RCMP's CMT attempted to facilitate agreement for those in the encampment. Of course, as you are aware, the road to agreement was not always smooth. Much of the time those in the armed encampment were motivated more by self satisfaction than they were by mutual satisfaction. The CMT dealt with this by utilizing several tactics to make it as difficult as possible for the opposition to say no.

The negotiating aspect of the CMT assisted here by attempting to increase the opposition's awareness of the consequences of not reaching agreement. The least provocative way to do this was to let the opposition teach themselves. Questions designed to promote critical thinking and the reality of not reaching agreement, were posed to the opposition (e.g. "How do you think this will be resolved if we don't come to an agreement?"). The negotiators made direct yet non-threatening statements related to what would probably happen without agreement (e.g. "If we don't come to some agreement I'm sure we'll both regret the consequences").

The tactical aspect of the operation was tasked with demonstrating and utilizing the power of the CMT. Demonstrations of power involved displaying the CMT's tactical potential without actually deploying it. Demonstrations of power included revealing the armoured personnel carriers, recovering the disabled RCMP vehicle from inside the inner perimeter, and both rotary and fixed wing fly-overs.

As the inhabitants of the encampment persisted in their refusal to come to agreement the CMT was forced to utilize its force. These occasions were always undertaken with the understanding that the more force deployed the more resistance there would be to overcome, and that every modicum of force used should be accompanied by a modicum of conciliation. Therefore next to not using any at all, the optimal tactic was to use as little force as possible to create the maximum effect, and to exhaust all alternatives before escalating. This incremental and exhaustive deployment of force ranged from the tactics of isolation, through the deployment of early warning devices, to the disabling of an opposition patrol vehicle. With each deployment of force the tactical aspect took great care not to provoke the opposition as the CMT's goal was not to crush them but to influence them toward agreement.

In the continuing effort to avoid provocation, the legitimacy of each exercise of force was ensured. The CMT believed that legitimate (i.e. morally and legally acceptable) uses of force were less likely to provoke opposition resistance and reaction. Legitimate uses of force seemed more impersonal and were less apt to be perceived by the opposition as an unjust attack requiring retaliation. The numerous demonstrations and exercises of RCMP power were viewed by those in the encampment as legitimate and resulted in little or no reaction.

The risk inherent in exercising force is that your exercise may result in an opposition attempt to retaliate and show its own power, or force you to accept its terms. Counterattacking with an offensive action is counterproductive as it is provocative and will result in reactance and hardened resistance. Simply neutralizing the opposition's attack without striking back is a more effective use of force. Such a neutral use of force is more likely to bring the opposition to their senses and return them to the negotiating table.

There were several examples of retaliatory offensives by those in the encampment being neutralized by different aspects of the CMT. On several occasions immediately preceding and during the barricade tactical members of the CMT were fired upon by inhabitants of the encampment. Immediate action plans exercised extreme control in neutralizing attacks with defensive fire at most. No counterattacks were undertaken.

The inhabitants of the encampment were warned that to stray outside certain boundaries would compromise their safety. On several occasions they ignored the warning and crossed the boundaries looking to retaliate. These forays were neutralized by the technical aspect of the CMT with early warning devices that, in a purely defensive manner, when tripped by the inhabitants, provided a clear and startling demonstration of force.

An outstanding example of neutralizing the opposition's retaliatory offensives involved an opposition patrol vehicle and three armed inhabitants challenging repeatedly the clearly defined boundaries. This vehicle was neutralized by CMT technicians, on a sortie outside the perimeter, with an in-ground explosive device that left the vehicle disabled and the inhabitants alive. Each of the above-noted events provide an example of a CMT defensive or neutralizing tactic designed to demonstrate force without provoking retaliation.

The CMT at Gustafsen Lake was aware that every crisis takes place within a context. They knew that the negotiation with the inhabitants of the encampment was taking place within a larger community. Moreover, they accepted that there were people from that community who were in a better position to influence the inhabitants toward agreement than the RCMP. Consequently the desire of the Shuswap people to be involved was welcomed by the CMT.

The CMT formed a coalition with the Shuswap-Okanagan Liaison Group. The coalition took advantage of the opposition's own supportive community. The CMT was aware that the inhabitants of the encampment were not responsive to the RCMP but believed that their community would be. It was then left to the Shuswap-Okanagan Liaison Group as representatives of the community to influence the inhabitants to agree.

The CMT took full advantage of the Shuswap-Okanagan Liaison Group's relationship with the inhabitants of the Gustafsen Lake encampment, to stop the latter's attacks and to promote negotiation. The liaison group was utilized as a mediator. They assisted both sides in understanding each other's interests and suggested options for agreement. The inhabitants of the encampment found it easier to accept the liaison group's solutions than those offered by the RCMP. And the RCMP was more likely to accept direction from the liaison group than it would have from the inhabitants.


The outcome of the Gustafsen Lake barricade illustrates clearly that the power of law enforcement CMTs should be used as a continuation of problem solving negotiation. The desired outcome is not victory but mutual satisfaction, and force is utilized as a tool to educate not fight. The opponent is advised of the consequences of disagreement through reality testing questions, warnings rather than threats, and if necessary demonstrations of police power. Several thousand years ago the great military strategist Sun Tzu stated "The best general is the one who never fights". Restating him to suit our purpose we might say, "The best crisis manager is the one who never assaults".

If forced to exercise power it seems that the least amount of force necessary to influence the opposition back to the negotiating table is optimal. The deployment of force should be unprovocative and any opposition retaliation should be neutralized without counterattack. The CMT should focus on defusing the opposition's reaction, perhaps through the use of well controlled third party intermediaries, to prevent further attacks and promote negotiation.

The CMT's power, to forge an agreement, comes not from its ability to impose significant costs on the opposition; but from its ability to contrast the costs of not agreeing with the benefits of agreement. It is the job of the CMT to continually enhance the contrast until the opposition realizes that agreement is the best way to meet their needs.

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