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There was a revealing little bit of testimony released in early June about the RCMP’s decision not to issue an emergency alert during the worst mass killing in Canadian history. Speaking with investigators for the public inquiry into the massacre, Lia Scanlan, director of strategic communications for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said that she was “glad” there wasn’t a provincewide alert notifying residents that the gunman was driving a replica police cruiser because the information would have put officers on the ground in harm’s way.

“My gut? You would have more dead police officers, because this is rural policing,” she said, implying that residents might have taken justice into their own hands and started targeting police.

The failure to disclose that information, however, likely cost civilians their lives. Heather O’Brien was driving on Plains Road on the morning of April 19, 2020, when she saw a police cruiser and pulled her car to the side of the road. She was shot and killed by the gunman. About 300 metres up the road, another victim – Kristen Beaton – was also killed in her vehicle after she was approached by the perpetrator in his mock police vehicle.

Had these women known the assailant was driving around in a lookalike police car, they likely would have been alive today. But according to Ms. Scanlan, releasing the information would have exposed officers to too much risk – a claim that distorts what the public generally believes to be among the chief principles of policing. That is, in emergency situations, we understand that police are supposed to put the lives of innocent civilians before their own. Ms. Scanlan’s explanation, however, implied the opposite.

This throwaway bit of testimony might have been lost in the deluge of information coming out of the inquiry had an extreme example of this reversal of police priorities not recently emerged out of Uvalde, Tex. We have learned in the weeks following the horrific shooting at Robb Elementary, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, about the extent to which police appeared to put their own welfare before those of the students. According to various reports, heavily armed officers arrived on the scene quickly, and though they were trained in active shooter scenarios, police waited outside the classroom for more than an hour for protective shields and a key to unlock the door (an official later said the door was not locked). The unarmed children were left at the mercy of a deranged killer.

There is no ambiguity as to what police are expected to do in these situations: act quickly – don’t wait, protect innocent life. The “priority of life scale” is literally spelled out in Texas training materials for first responders: the lives of innocent civilians come first, then those of first responders, and then, last, that of the offender. There is no waiting for keys or shields or even for more police backup: police must act to neutralize the threat immediately, even if it puts their own life in danger. Yet for some reason in Uvalde, the priority of life scale got catastrophically, disturbingly twisted.

Policing as an institution functions off of a certain pact with the public. Officers are expected to take risks we wouldn’t ask of the average civilian and, in exchange, they are afforded extraordinary powers (in Canada, to carry handguns for example), protections (against assault as specifically outlined in the Criminal Code) and honour and esteem. In emergency situations, police are expected to run toward the danger while the rest of us run away, which is why the profession is generally held in high regard. But if police are seen running away with the crowd too many times – or hesitating outside a classroom where kids are being slaughtered, or withholding information to protect police during a killer’s rampage – how does law enforcement’s pact with the public survive?

Communities of colour will tell you this pact, to the extent that it ever existed, has long been broken. So too will mental health advocates, who justifiably raise hell every time police taser a teenage girl or elderly woman to protect themselves where an individual is in crisis. Perhaps from their perspective, Uvalde and Portapique simply revealed to everyone else what they have long known: that police cannot necessarily be counted on in a crisis.

Still, it would be wrong to imply police never put their lives on the line; the RCMP lost one of their own during the Portapique massacre, and just this week six officers in Saanich, B.C., were injured as they responded to a bank robbery. But a few especially egregious examples of mixed up police priorities can throw the entire profession into disrepute, and destroy law enforcement’s relationship with a community. Portapique and Uvalde will likely never see police in the same way, and those observing the calamity from the outside very well might not either.

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