Another senior RCMP commander detailed the national force’s stumbling response to the worst gun rampage in Canadian history, as calls grow to change an approach to police testimony that is fuelling distrust with Nova Scotia’s mass shooting inquiry.
RCMP Sergeant Andy O’Brien, appearing Tuesday by video and spared from cross-examination, admitted mistakes were made in the police response to the massacre of 22 people in rural Nova Scotia in April, 2020. He was the third senior RCMP commander given special accommodation by the inquiry – part of a “trauma-informed” approach that some Nova Scotians say has destroyed their faith in the process.
“It’s created a huge problem,” said Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor who has closely followed the inquiry. “For the families of victims and their lawyers to show this degree of unhappiness and distrust is very serious, and very damaging to the ultimate impact of this inquiry.”
The decision to allow some RCMP officers to avoid being questioned by outside lawyers prompted protests last week and Monday near the Truro hotel where proceedings are being held, and caused most families of victims to boycott the hearings, telling their law firms not to participate. Some have accused the inquiry of prioritizing the mental health of RCMP commanders over getting to the truth – or worse, being part of a cover-up, and negligent in its promise to bring accountability to police actions over the 13-hour rampage.
The commission running the inquiry has defended its approach, saying any witness can request special accommodations for confidential medical reasons, to avoid being retraumatized by giving live testimony. But so far, those accommodations have only been granted for senior RCMP commanders, and not front-line officers, despite a request by the RCMP union they not be asked to testify.
“Many people see the trauma-informed label as a possible smokescreen used to protect those who should be held accountable,” Prof. MacKay said. “Even if you accept that we want to be trauma-informed, why is it that the major application of this, to date, has only been at the higher levels of the RCMP?”
Without the ability to cross-examine key RCMP commanders, the Mass Casualty Commission is rapidly losing credibility in the eyes of the public, Prof. MacKay said. The commission says victims’ families can submit questions to the inquiry’s lawyers – but any appearance that questions are being vetted gives the impression of collusion with the RCMP, he said.
“I don’t think it’s true, but that appearance of collusion, from a public perception point of view, really raises questions of impartiality,” he said. “When it appears they’re protecting key players, how do you keep that perception of independence and impartiality?”
Sgt. O’Brien, during questioning by a commission lawyer, insisted the Mounties did the best they could in a chaotic, rapidly evolving event where it was often unclear who was in charge.
“We did our best,” he said. “There are parts of this process I wish we did better. But we did the best with what we had.”
He admitted he’d had four to five drinks of rum in the hours before the shooting began and needed his wife to drive him to his RCMP detachment, to retrieve his laptop and police radio. Little over an hour later, he began taking command of the police response, directing officers from his home.
Sgt. O’Brien, who insisted he wasn’t impaired, made several key decisions – including telling a second team of Mounties not to enter Portapique, N.S., where the shooting began; dismissing concerns about an escape route used by the killer; and telling officers they weren’t searching for a look-alike replica RCMP patrol car, but instead a decommissioned police vehicle.
In reality, the killer, a 51-year-old denturist, had built an identical-looking RCMP cruiser that he used throughout his rampage. The Mounties had this information from multiple 911 callers early on in the attack, but withheld it from the public for 12 hours – believing witnesses to be confused, or that the gunman had died by suicide and was no longer a threat.
Sgt. O’Brien also explained he didn’t request a provincewide emergency alert during the manhunt, because he believed that the smartphone-based alerting system was essentially a “weather app” used only for severe storms.
“It didn’t occur to me. None of us thought of it, because none of us had seen it used in any other capacity,” he said. “There are going to be kinks, but you can’t avoid that. It’s part of the process.”
His testimony was the latest in a series by RCMP officers who described a manhunt crippled by indecision, ill-prepared commanders, confusion and problematic assumptions that were later proven wrong.
Prof. MacKay believes the inquiry can begin to rebuild some trust if it more effectively explains to the public why using a trauma-informed approach gives it better testimony, and helps it get closer to the truth of what went wrong.
The damage to the RCMP in rural Nova Scotia, over the force’s disorganized management and communication exposed by the deadly rampage, may be harder to fix, however.
“I’m not sure they can recover,” he said. “None of this builds public confidence.”
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