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'Nova Scotians' sense of safety was rocked': RCMP failures dominate inquiry's final report into 2020 mass shooting

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A long list of failures by Nova Scotia RCMP leadership and policing systems dominate the final report into Nova Scotia’s April 2020 mass shooting.

Gabriel Wortman’s 13-hour killing rampage on April 18 and 19 took the lives of 22 people, including a pregnant mother. The inquiry’s timeline of events, determined through interviews, medical records, and forensic evidence -- some of it, found by members of the public, it states -- indicate the gunman killed his first 13 victims in the Portapique, N.S., area within a 45-minute period the night of April 18.

Dressed like a police officer and driving his replica RCMP cruiser, Wortman continued to elude police into the next day, when he killed another nine people, including an RCMP officer in an exchange of gunfire.

After months of public hearings, hours of testimony, and thousands of pages of evidence, the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report, released at a public event in Truro, N.S. Thursday, is filled with harsh criticisms of the RCMP’s actions before, during, and after the tragedy.

Throughout the entire report, commissioners J. Michael MacDonald, Leanne Fitch, and Kim Stanton never use Wortman’s name, only referring to the killer as “the perpetrator.”

From the tragedy’s outset, the commissioners write, the RCMP failed to fully recognize the important role of eyewitness accounts on the ground in Portapique the night of April 18.

“In particular, the RCMP discounted the clear information coming from Portapique community members that the perpetrator was driving a fully marked RCMP vehicle … a false conclusion that the eyewitness accounts were mistaken.”

That information, it says, wasn’t conveyed to responding police officers over the hours that followed, nor to the public.

The commissioners note many residents of Portapique, including some of those killed, “put themselves in harm’s way in their attempts to ensure the safety of their neighbours,” as they left their homes to investigate the fires and explosions happening in the community.

The report says the RCMP “underestimated” the role of community members and their eyewitness accounts, which not only identified the gunman, but provided descriptions of his replica RCMP cruiser.

According to the findings, the RCMP had received three 911 calls about the active shooter in Portapique the night of April 18 within a half-hour of the first fatality. But, it concludes, “the gaps in the information captured and shared by call-takers and dispatchers were also the result of ineffective OCC (Operational Communications Centre) policies and practices.”

The report criticizes RCMP critical incident commanders for failing to establish sufficient containment of the Portapique area, as the killer escaped the area using a rough dirt road next to a blueberry field.

As for notifying residents of the danger and evacuating the community when the shootings began, the report says, “the RCMP had not prepared for how to best notify community members and execute a large-scale evacuation of civilians from a hot zone while and active threat was in progress.”

“A significant failure,” write the commissioners, “to implement the priority of preserving life.”

An Alert Ready message was never issued to the wider public -- a lack of action the commissioners attribute to a “lack of knowledge … at least partly due to the historical decisions made by the RCMP…”

According to the commission, however, “Alert Ready was the best available tool to warn the Nova Scotia public.”

In addition, the commissioners note, “the RCMP did not conduct a systematic search of Portapique for additional fatalities until sometime after 5:30 p.m. on April 19,” and failed to give families timely next-of-kin notifications.

The report lays much of the responsibility at the feet of RCMP commanders and systemic problems within Canada’s national police force.

In fact, the commissioners determined that “contrary to national RCMP policy, in April 2020 the Bible Hill detachment had no emergency operational plan, and similarly, H Division had no violent crime-in-progress emergency operational plan.”

While the RCMP’s first responding officers on the ground in Portapique “acted with great courage,” the commissioners conclude the RCMP’s focus on finding and stopping the gunman, “led to the exclusion of rescue-oriented tasks such as systematically finding, warning, and evacuating community members or searching for victims.”

By not only describing the situation as a “weapons call” in the RCMP’s first tweet about the shootings on April 18, the commission states RCMP public communication “seriously understated the threat.”

The lack of public communication by police meant members of the public were sharing messages about what was happening, particularly the fires in Portapique, as early as 11 p.m. April 18.

The response by RCMP command in the overnight hours of April 19, adds the commission, as the gunman continued on his path throughout central Nova Scotia, included “flawed decision-making,” a lack of routine updates, and failure to reassess the situation.

“We conclude,” write the commissioners, “that the critical incident command did not seriously consider alternatives to the belief that the perpetrator was still in Portapique.”

That, found the MCC, contributed to the force’s lack of preparedness when Wortman would emerge and begin killing again that Sunday morning.

The RCMP’s communication and co-ordination challenges continued into the second day, writes the commission, “detracting from the RCMP’s ability to respond to the mass casualty in a co-ordinated and strategic fashion.”

The information from the killer’s common-law-spouse, Lisa Banfield, indicating Wortman was driving his mock RCMP cruiser, came to investigators around 7:30 a.m. Sunday, which “allowed the perpetrator to be highly mobile and hide in plain sight, to catastrophic effect.”

The RCMP didn’t notify the public of that fact, and the fact Wortman was wearing what looked like a police uniform, until a tweet at 10:17 a.m. In the commission’s conclusion, that “deprived” Nova Scotians of the opportunity to protect themselves.

“(RCMP) moved slowly to convey key information,” write the commissioners, “and their efforts were often too little, too late.”

That key information, say the commissioners, also wasn’t shared quickly or accurately by commanding officers with the senior leadership at the Nova Scotia or national headquarters, or with other first responders in the province.

As for the use of social media as the RCMP’s primary way of sharing what information it did, the commissioners found that “insufficient” and didn’t recognize the role of the media in getting details out to the public.

In the difficult days, weeks, and months following the tragedy, the commission says the Nova Scotia RCMP and Nova Scotia Victim Services were “unprepared” for the need for support for survivors and family members, the “ad hoc attempts,” it says, were just not enough.

Furthermore, the commission has revealed it was forced to step in to ensure an RCMP directive to the Nova Scotia medical examiner “not to release information to families … including about the manner of death,” was reversed, calling the directive “unnecessary and harmful.”

The commissioners point to failures by both police and the provincial government in providing families with timely information and proper mental health services.

The result, they write, is “a health deficit and a public health emergency.”

Overall, say the commissioners, the mass shooting was a serious blow to the entire province.

“Nova Scotians’ sense of safety was rocked,” they write.

In one of their most critical condemnations, the commissioners take aim at RCMP top brass for neglecting to review the force’s own actions in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“More than two years after the event,” they write, “RCMP leadership has done very little to systematically evaluate its critical response to the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history.”

It’s a move, the commissioners write, that “serves no one.”

When it comes to making changes within the RCMP, state the commissioners, “If the RCMP’s management does not share a commitment to making these changes … those efforts will likely fail.”

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