The former top Mountie in Nova Scotia insists the RCMP’s response to the country’s worst mass shooting was well-executed, and blames most of the problems highlighted by a public inquiry into the killings on a lack of resources.
Now-retired assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman, who left the RCMP just months before the public inquiry began, acknowledged in testimony before the Mass Casualty Commission Monday there were communication issues that caused challenges for officers on the ground, and delays in public alerting. But she described much of the police manhunt for the killer as “very well done,” and tactical officers’ actions as “heroic.”
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is also scheduled to testify before the Nova Scotia inquiry on Tuesday, where she is expected to answer questions about political interference in the RCMP investigation into the mass shooting. Both senior Mounties have previously been questioned by a parliamentary committee in Ottawa investigating allegations the commissioner tried to use the tragedy to boost support for the Liberals’ gun-control agenda.
Ms. Bergerman’s testimony in Halifax stood at odds with a consultant’s report, also released Monday through the inquiry, that said most of Nova Scotia’s senior RCMP staff believed there were major “dysfunctions” in their division long before the April, 2020, mass shooting that left 22 dead.
Instead, the former top Mountie blamed negative media coverage that focused on mistakes made by police for “traumatic” low morale among RCMP officers after the mass shooting. The public inquiry has exposed a pattern of confusion, hesitation and false assumptions made by the RCMP during the critical hours after the shooting began – all while withholding from the public key information that the escaped gunman was driving a look-alike RCMP patrol car.
At the Halifax inquiry, lawyers for the gunman’s victims pressed the retired commander on her belief that resource issues were to blame for the Mounties’ stumbles, noting the RCMP didn’t ask any municipal police forces in Nova Scotia for help during the 13-hour manhunt. And they wanted to know why no internal reviews of the RCMP response have been completed more than two years after the tragedy.
“Do you think the next active shooter will wait for those reviews to be completed?” asked Josh Bryson, a lawyer representing the family of Joy and Peter Bond.
The Bonds were killed on Cobequid Court, just a short walk from gunman Gabriel Wortman’s Portapique cottage, but their bodies weren’t discovered until 19 hours after the shooting began. Their family has questioned whether they might have survived had the RCMP checked all neighbouring properties sooner.
Ms. Bergerman’s defence was that she was disconnected from many of the on-the-ground decisions made by the Mounties, and had scant details during the mass shooting. She confirmed that she learned the next morning about Mr. Wortman’s replica car but was “stunned” when she saw it on the news shortly before she left home to head to her office around 9:30 a.m. on the second day of the attack.
“I do recall being, I would describe, [being] stunned when I saw the police car that they had,” Ms. Bergerman said, in an interview with inquiry lawyers that was released on Monday.
She said it was only after she made it to her office that she was informed that the photo had been provided to the RCMP by a witness. That photo had been obtained from a relative of Lisa Banfield – the killer’s spouse – by Halifax Regional Police, who had sent it to the RCMP around 7:30 a.m. The photo wasn’t shared publicly by police until the RCMP issued a tweet around three hours later.
Ms. Bergerman also confirmed that she never considered using the province’s Alert Ready system to advise the public, saying that she was told information was being released through Twitter, as was the Nova Scotia RCMP’s practice.
“So I was satisfied with what they were trying to do at that point,” she said. “I’ve never considered Alert Ready.”
In the consultant’s report that detailed low morale among the RCMP, senior staff said there were chronic shortages throughout the Nova Scotia division, leading to excessive use of overtime and additional burdens on healthy officers.
The public inquiry has heard testimony from RCMP commanders who said personnel shortages plagued their detachment and only four officers – rather than the expected six – were available to respond during the crucial 45 minutes when the first 13 killings occurred in Portapique.
On the question of political interference, Ms. Bergerman said that Nova Scotia RCMP sent information about the killer’s weapons to Commissioner Lucki and to the deputy commissioner in an April, 23, 2020, e-mail only after getting the go-ahead from the head of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team, Pat Curran.
Mr. Curran previously told the inquiry that he “gave no directives to the RCMP” about the five firearms the killer had in his possession when he was killed by police on April 19.
Ms. Bergerman said she disagrees with Mr. Curran’s assertion, adding that it wasn’t her understanding of the phone conversation the head of SiRT had with both her and RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather.
“Well that’s not what he said at the call,” she told the inquiry. “He said it was not to be shared outside [but] it could be shared within the RCMP.”
Ms. Bergerman also told inquiry lawyers that she felt that an April 28, 2020, phone call with Commissioner Lucki was the first time she was aware that potential gun legislation to ban assault-style weapons was being considered by the federal Liberal government.
Ms. Bergerman characterized the commissioner as angry that details about the gunman’s weapons had not been included in an RCMP news conference conducted prior to the call.
“She felt disrespected and disobeyed,” Ms. Bergerman said. “Like there was gun legislation coming up and that we didn’t understand the big picture as it related to that.”
Commissioner Lucki has maintained that she did not interfere in the investigation but was frustrated with the Nova Scotia division over its communication with the public, because media were reporting facts before the RCMP released them.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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