RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told a public inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting that there have been no reforms to the national police force in the more than 28 months since the deadly gun rampage, despite a series of problems exposed by the Mounties’ response to the violence.
In her testimony, Commissioner Lucki said she couldn’t directly answer questions about why the RCMP’s national headquarters hadn’t acted upon requests from the Nova Scotia RCMP for a formal review of the police response to the shooting. And she also didn’t respond directly to questions about why the force hasn’t made any improvements – particularly in areas such as policy, staffing in rural areas, equipment and cadet training – that could help prevent another tragedy from happening.
The commissioner said the Mounties are monitoring the inquiry, and are trying to identify gaps in their policies and training, but have yet to enact any changes. While she said criticism of the RCMP’s actions in Nova Scotia have troubled her, she insisted the force’s leadership is taking the problems exposed by the independent probe seriously.
“It’s not going on deaf ears,” she said. “I know before this incident there were many in Nova Scotia who had trust in their RCMP. I know this incident has shattered that trust for many.”
Wednesday was the commissioner’s second day in Halifax giving testimony to the inquiry, which is known as the Mass Casualty Commission. Lawyers for families of the gunman’s 22 victims pressed her on the RCMP’s lack of action in the aftermath of the shooting, the deadliest in Canadian history.
“You’ve not instituted any material changes,” said lawyer Josh Bryson, who represents the family of Joy and Peter Bond, two of the victims. “You’ve missed valuable learning opportunities for those cadets who are now members. You could’ve been teaching them your findings, best practices of what came out of Portapique.”
The inquiry, now in its sixth month, has shown the RCMP were ill-prepared for the attack. The gunman, a denturist driving a replica RCMP patrol car, began killing in Portapique, N.S., and then spent 13 hours spreading mayhem across rural communities in the province before he was killed by police. The RCMP response was plagued by shoddy technology, inaccurate assumptions about the killer’s whereabouts and delays in warning the public. At one point, in a case of mistaken identity, two Mounties shot up a fire hall with people cowering inside. Officers complained of a confusing and contradictory chain of command.
The RCMP have also been criticized for failing to prevent the shooting spree. Before the killings, police had received complaints about the man, Gabriel Wortman, for years, including allegations of domestic violence and reports that he had a collection of illegal guns.
And yet no RCMP personnel have been disciplined as a result of the force’s actions before and during the killings. And the force has so far resisted calls to examine what went so terribly wrong over the course of the manhunt.
Near the end of the day’s testimony, the commissioner expressed regret on behalf of the force. “I want to apologize for the RCMP, but in such a way that we weren’t what you expected us to be and I don’t think we were what you wanted us to be or what you needed us to be,” she said.
The commissioner said some of the challenges highlighted by the Nova Scotia mass shooting raise broader questions about the future of rural policing in Canada. The RCMP provide policing under contract to 169 communities, a service that gets a 30-per-cent subsidy from Ottawa.
The RCMP chief acknowledged some communities have been re-examining their use of the Mounties in the years since the mass shooting. The RCMP, she added, are being forced by financial constraints to review the way they deploy police in rural areas. But she said their policing has remained “second to none.”
“I think any municipality and province would be remiss not to review their policing services, to make sure it meets their needs,” she said. “We’re thinking about this a lot. ... Often the case is we’re not resourced to do the policing we are asked to do.”
Mr. Bryson asked Commissioner Lucki why the RCMP hadn’t implemented recommendations from past reviews calling for police investigators to attend crime scenes in a timely fashion. The Bonds’ bodies weren’t discovered until more than 18 hours after the shooting began, which the lawyer said was a failure of basic RCMP policy. Officers ordinarily canvass neighbours and secure crime scenes following major incidents.
The commissioner noted that the RCMP has about 32,000 employees, and said she couldn’t personally address past policy reforms in detail, such as changes to the way officers respond to mass shootings. She speculated that the RCMP had failed to communicate lessons learned from past cases to rank-and-file members.
“In my role as commissioner, I’m looking at things from the 10,000-foot level,” she said. “At my level, I don’t get into the weeds on many of these questions.”
On Tuesday, her first day of testimony, the commissioner played down concerns about political interference in the mass shooting investigation. She has been accused of pressing Nova Scotia investigators to release details about the guns used by the killer in order to bolster the federal government’s push for gun control. She said she wanted those details made public in the interest of transparency, not because of a political agenda.
During Wednesday’s testimony, she acknowledged that the RCMP had made mistakes in Nova Scotia. But she stopped short of saying the Mounties should have used the province’s Ready Alert system to notify the public that the killer was on the loose. At the time of the incident, she said, it wasn’t the RCMP’s practice to use the alert system for anything other than severe weather events. Instead, the force used Twitter to warn the public of the killings.
Commissioner Lucki said the Mounties need to learn from their failures, and she apologized to those who had been let down by the national force.
“It can always be better,” she said.
Jane Lenehan, a lawyer for family of the gunman’s last victim, Gina Goulet, asked the commissioner whether she approved of a decision by Sergeant Andy O’Brien, now retired, to take control of the police response on April 18, 2020, even though he had just had four to five drinks of rum while off duty.
“My expectation is that when people go to work, they are able to work, and are not over the legal limit,” Commissioner Lucki replied.
The commissioner also defended Chief Superintendent Chris Leather, who has been criticized for his decision during the manhunt to ignore an offer of help from the chief of the Truro Police, who had officers nearby able to assist. Commissioner Lucki said the RCMP commander had a lot going on, and that the Truro police should have directed their offer elsewhere.
“My first thought would be, ‘Oh my gosh, why are you phoning me?’” the commissioner said.
Ms. Lenehan suggested the RCMP’s bureaucratic management culture is the reason it has been slow to reform. The force’s web-like structure is “actually thwarting efforts for accountability, and efforts to change this organization that you lead,” she said.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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