The Portapique sign on Highway 2 was adorned with a NS tartan sash following the mass shooting that began there on April 18, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

The debate over the RCMP’s response to the mass shootings at Portapique and other rural locations has focused on the lack of awareness of — and response to — earlier community complaints and information about the offender. I am struck by the amount of prior knowledge and information that local residents and neighbours had of the killer’s threatening and abusive behaviour, his domestic violence, police vehicles, and stockpiling of illegal weapons. In hindsight, this is exactly the kind of information that would have been useful in preventing this tragedy.

The question, then, is this: Why didn’t the RCMP know what everyone else in the community seemed to know?

For answers, we must examine the current policing model the RCMP uses in rural Nova Scotia. Despite vague claims to be community-based, the RCMP model of rural policing is in fact a highly centralized model of “reactive” policing, which consolidates resources in one location and then tries its best to police large areas with very few officers, thus making it a response-based system.

This model places an emphasis on cost efficiency, and as a result, delivers a limited response — but not a “preventive” service. In this model, RCMP members must spend their time responding to calls for service that involve many kilometres of round-trip driving and take several hours to complete. This leaves little time or incentive for officers to get to know and be known in a community and to become aware of anything other than official calls and complaints. They become strangers in a hurry, policing strangers.

Cities Benefit from Community Policing

Ironically, community-based policing exists — at least in theory — in urban communities. The density of population and adequate law enforcement resources in larger towns and cities emphasize the strategic value of personal police involvement.

Related: “Colchester councillor: change in RCMP policing model left information gap on shooter

Officers engage with local citizens on the street, at the hockey rink, or in the shopping mall parking lot, and exchange relevant policing information with them. By spending time and getting to know the community, officers develop knowledge and trust while gathering information on troublesome people and dangerous behaviours. This community-sourced information enables police to take exploratory and preventive actions before — and not after — something bad happens.

What’s Next?

While we cannot say for sure that a community-based policing model would have prevented the horrific events in April from happening, it is nevertheless worth examining how and why the current model of RCMP rural policing seems to have have been so inadequate.

If we consider moving to a more personally engaged and knowledgeable community-based policing system, the RCMP will need a more creative and effective service delivery model (e.g. community constables, more detachments). They will need adequate human resources to better get to know the people and the communities they currently drive through on their way to somewhere else. This change would require all three levels of government to pay more for a better-resourced, community-oriented rural RCMP.

By investing in a model which harnesses the strength and knowledge of rural citizens with a community-based police presence, we would improve law enforcement and protection services in rural areas and prevent another tragedy like the April murders from ever happening again.

Chris Murphy is a retired Professor of Sociology from Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College. He was extensively involved in policing research and has published articles and policy papers on small town and community policing.

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