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A Nova Scotia flag and single candle hangs on a pole on Highway 2 near Portapique, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020 in memory of those killed. The RCMP have been criticized over how they responded to the shooting and for not warning residents about the gunman through the province’s public alert system.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia RCMP say they are re-examining a 2013 domestic abuse and weapons complaint against the gunman behind Canada’s worst mass shooting, trying to better understand what, if any, action was taken at the time.

They are also reviewing a policy under which some RCMP records are purged after two years, in light of a now-deleted 2011 police safety bulletin that warned Gabriel Wortman had a stash of weapons and had said he wanted to kill a police officer.

That safety bulletin was erased from the RCMP’s database in 2013 – part of an information management policy that police acknowledge likely needs to change.

“We need to retain that information, and know about it for circumstances such as this,” Chief Superintendent Chris Leather, criminal operations officer for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said during an update on the investigation.

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The 2011 safety bulletin and 2013 complaint, which came to light in news reports, show the gunman was on the police radar long before he killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia in April, an attack police say started with an assault on the woman he lived with.

The RCMP have been criticized over how they responded to the shooting and for not warning residents about the gunman through the province’s public alert system. Now, they’re also facing questions about why the earlier complaints against the 51-year-old denturist did not result in charges.

RCMP brass say they’ve identified two officers who handled the 2013 domestic abuse complaint, made by a neighbour in Portapique, N.S., where the gunman had a cottage. The complainant was concerned about the gunman’s collection of illegal weapons and assaults on his partner – including an incident where he was seen choking her on the ground during a bonfire.

“We’re working through what records, notes and recollections they have from that incident,” said Superintendent Darren Campbell, the officer in charge of support services for Nova Scotia RCMP.

The RCMP initially said it had no record of that 2013 complaint.

Linda MacDonald, a co-founder of Persons Against Non-State Torture, an anti-domestic violence organization, said cases where complaints seem to go nowhere can dissuade people from reporting incidents. That’s a major problem, because chronic spousal abuse and misogyny are often linked to larger violent acts, she said.

“We’re very concerned that police don’t take these complaints very seriously,” said Ms. MacDonald, a nurse based in Truro, N.S. “There’s such a close connection between mass violence and spousal assault, but police are ignoring it in this case.”

Supt. Campbell said complaints to police are taken seriously and followed up.

“I need the public to understand, when you call us, we believe you,” he said.

The 2011 safety bulletin was triggered by an anonymous tip to the Truro Police Service from someone concerned about Mr. Wortman’s state of mind, and his anger over a complaint about a break-and-enter at the cottage he felt wasn’t properly investigated. The gunman’s main residence was in Dartmouth, so Halifax Regional Police investigated the tip, and then closed the file, the RCMP said.

An RCMP officer visited the cottage in Portapique several times, but didn’t witness anything that would justify further investigation or enough evidence of a danger to the public to produce a search warrant, Supt. Campbell said.

“He didn’t see anything that caused him any concern or allow him to take further action,” he said.

Chief Supt. Leather also suggested other reports, including complaints and disputes with neighbours in the Portapique area from the early 2000s may have also been purged from police records.

Still, had police known about the 2011 safety bulletin when they responded to 911 calls in April, they would not have responded any differently, he said. The RCMP say the weapons used in the attack were obtained long after that warning was issued.

“While a bulletin existed in 2011, it likely would not have changed our response on April 18 and 19,” he said.

Supt. Campbell also revealed some details about an assessment done by a forensic psychologist, which described the gunman as an “injustice collector.”

Police use the term to describe someone who “may have felt slighted or cheated or disrespected at any point in time in their lives. It may be real, it may be perceived by the individual, however, as a result, these injustices were held onto,” he said.

Supt. Campbell said at the briefing that a behavioural analysis of the gunman has found some of his victims were targeted for perceived past injustices, while others were selected at random.

The RCMP’s top brass also said they didn’t order an evacuation of Portapique during the mass shooting because they initially believed the gunman was in the area “lying in wait" – and sending people out of their homes might put them in danger.

They now know he slipped away just minutes after RCMP arrived, driving a look-alike police vehicle and wearing an officer’s uniform.

The RCMP don’t yet know how he obtained the uniform. He was never an auxiliary member of the RCMP or a volunteer, Chief Supt. Leather confirmed. He also did not get help from two retired RCMP officers in his family, or a friend in another police force, to obtain any of his uniforms or vests, they said.

Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister says there will be a joint federal-provincial inquiry or review into the mass killing, but the exact form is still taking shape. The RCMP are working on a national policy for public alerts.

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