How the RCMP says it has changed since the Nova Scotia mass shooting
The federal government has laid out a series of “missteps” by the RCMP that have been corrected since the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April 2020.
They are outlined in a final submission to the inquiry examining the tragedy and were released to the public on Thursday. The commission’s hearings ended in September.
Lori Ward, a lawyer representing the Attorney General of Canada, outlines several policy changes in her final submissions to the Mass Casualty Commission. They include better communication with the public and other emergency responders, properly canvassing crime scenes and supplying front-line Mounties with night-vision equipment.
The RCMP’s actions have been scrutinized since the tragedy of April 18-19, 2020, when a lone gunman masquerading as a police officer killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, in five rural communities over a period of 13 hours.
When it comes to public communication, Ward said there is “clearly much to be learned.”
“There were missteps in communications to the public with respect to the initial incident as well as the replica RCMP car,” she said.
Ward said the first tweet from RCMP on the night of April 18 said police were responding to a firearms complaint, and “did not convey the gravity of the situation.”
She said internal confusion over who needed to approve messages also didn’t help, particularly when the photo of the replica cruiser being driven by the gunman was delayed for hours.
“The evidence highlights the need for creating a better process for communicating with the public during a critical incident.”
Ward said a strategic communications person will now be embedded within the command post during a critical incident, ensuring the “release of timely and detailed information to the public.”
Lost radio messages
Internal communication between officers were also highlighted during the inquiry, including the fact key messages were lost over the police radio.
For example, the wife of a man who was shot in Portapique told Const. Vicki Colford there was a possible back road out of the community along a blueberry field. Colford communicated that detail over the radio, but no one heard her.
The gunman escaped on that road around 10:45 p.m.
“The RCMP has taken note of these shortcomings and is making changes to improve communications to avoid any loss or delay of the sharing of information during a critical incident,” writes Ward.
Additional training is now available for RCMP members on the radio system. Ward said the aim is for every officer to “have a clear understanding of ways in which they can ensure important information broadcast over the radio has been received by those in command.”
Other first responders
She said when it comes to notifying partner agencies, such as fire or ambulance services, the force also has more work to do.
Paramedics who responded to Portapique in the first hour testified at the inquiry they had no idea how much danger they were in, or that they were too close to the scene.
“The RCMP recognizes the importance of ensuring they are apprised of any danger they may face when responding to a call for assistance so they can make informed decisions regarding their ability to respond and take any precautions they deem necessary and appropriate,” said Ward.
She said that training and operating procedures have been adjusted at the operational communications centre (OCC). She even suggested the commission should recommend that all first responders move to encrypted radio channels to “facilitate more open and transparent communications between all partner agencies during a critical incident.”
Officers who responded to Portapique in the first hour described how night-vision equipment and mapping software would have been useful in the pitch dark. Officers had to rely on their personal phones for directions and sparingly used their flashlights for fear of becoming a target of the active shooter.
Ward said in her report that night-vision equipment is not typically used by general duty members, only emergency response teams. However, since new equipment was made available for Nova Scotia’s tactical team last year, the old night-vision equipment that was “still functional” was distributed to detachments for general use.
She added that night-vision goggles are “heavy, expensive, and require training and maintenance.”
Crime scenes and family liaison
In Ward’s submission to the inquiry, she also addressed the failure to locate victims in Portapique homes, including those on a street called Cobequid Court, until late into the day on April 19, 2020.
“Only after the crime scenes in Cobequid Court were discovered did the RCMP undertake a full community canvass. The command triangle should have ensured that this was done much sooner,” said Ward.
The RCMP will be reviewing its policy regarding crime scenes and canvassing, especially when it comes to “a critical incident of this nature involving multiple casualties,” according to Ward.
Some grieving families raised concerns about the fact only one RCMP officer was assigned as a liaison with the loved ones of 21 victims in the aftermath. The family of Const. Heidi Stevenson, who died in a gunfight, was assigned their own officer.
Ward said a guidebook is now being created that would be more “in-depth” than current policy. The RCMP is also looking at developing online training to assist officers assigned to liaise with victims’ families.
“It is clear that some of the families were in need of guidance in navigating what services were available to assist them in practical matters such as the cleaning [of] crime scenes, dealing with insurance providers, and accessing counselling,” she said.
The Mass Casualty Commission is expected to file its final report by March 31, 2023.
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