The Mass Casualty Commission is calling for a complete overhaul of policing in Canada, including potentially breaking up the RCMP.

Even without going that far, the commission recommends sweeping changes within the RCMP, including:

• The RCMP Training Depot in Regina be phased out by 2032 and replaced by a three-year university degree program to educate police officers. 

• More people from under-represented groups such as visible minorities should be actively recruited and financially supported during training.

• The RCMP should stop using rural policing as the first rung in a career ladder and consider incentivizing officers to make rural policing a career choice. 

The final report issued by the commission today goes on to call for changes in practically every aspect of police work: “Most important, the RCMP must undergo the fundamental change called for in so many previous reports.”

One recommendation calls on the federal Public Safety Minister to commission yet another in-depth external report (the Bastarache report was completed only two years ago) about exactly what services the RCMP should be providing. 

Many reports and many authors have said the RCMP’s mandate to protect borders, gather intelligence on terrorist threats, stop human and drug trafficking, and provide policing on contract to First Nations communities and large areas of rural Canada is too unwieldy to be sustainable. 

The commission appears to agree:

After obtaining the external review recommended here, Public Safety Canada and the federal minister of public safety establish clear priorities for the RCMP, retaining the tasks that are suitable to a federal policing agency, and identifying what responsibilities are better reassigned to other agencies (including, potentially to new policing agencies). This may entail a reconfiguration of policing in Canada and a new approach to federal financial support for provincial and municipal policing services.

The report says the RCMP should fulfil its contract obligations with municipalities and provinces by filling positions when members are off sick or on leave. 

This has been an ongoing irritant between those paying the bill and the RCMP supplying the boots on the ground for decades. 

In Bible Hill, the detachment was short six active duty members when the Portapique shootings occurred.

Other significant recommendations in the report aim to change the management culture within the RCMP, including taking responsibility and owning up to mistakes made in dealing with the public as well as systemic discrimination within its own ranks. 

One recommendation suggests the future promotion of non-commissioned officers be based on the ability to apologize and own errors in judgment.

Responding to mass shootings

The police response to the mass shootings that began in Portapique “was hindered by system-wide poor communication and failures of coordination,” says the report.

The commissioners — a former judge, a former police chief, and a lawyer who spent 18 months investigating what happened in April 2020 — believe these are problems that can be fixed. 

They list five principles for how police forces should deal with mass incidents:

1. Prepare for a critical incident before it happens. 

The MCC found that contrary to national policy, in April 2020 the Bible Hill RCMP detachment had no emergency operational plan in place, and, similarly, H Division had no violent crime-in-progress emergency operational plan. 

Similarly, the report states risk managers and district supervisors were not adequately trained and had not practised for a large-scale incident and this contributed to problems and confusion in the early hours. 

The report recommends a critical incident plan also consider the best way to make use of police radios and communicate any updates to all officers.

2. Recognize every critical incident is unique

Early in its report the MCC notes:

Mistakes and misjudgments on the part of responders and supervisors may be inevitable. We recognize that these individuals did their best in unprecedented circumstances and that, ultimately, it is the perpetrator who is responsible for his actions. Nonetheless, in order to evaluate the quality of the critical incident response, it is necessary to look carefully at the decisions and actions taken and not taken by some individuals, particularly those who occupied supervisory and leadership roles.

The commissioners said “lessons learned” after the 2014 Moncton shootings, in which five cops were shot, were not sustained. 

The Onslow Belmont Fire Hall.
The Onslow Belmont Fire Hall. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

For example, after the Moncton shootings, all police vehicles had software installed that allowed supervisors to know exactly where every police car was located. But the licence for that software had not been renewed on April 2020, according to the MCC report, and resulted in unintended consequences like the blue-on-blue shooting at the Onslow fire hall.

The report continues:

The fact that only some RCMP vehicles could be automatically tracked via CIIDS – in particular, that Emergency Response Team and unmarked vehicles do not have a mobile work station and so cannot be tracked in this manner – made the coordination of a dynamic, highspeed critical incident response to a perpetrator driving a replica RCMP cruiser a Herculean task. Had RCMP members been able to readily and authoritatively determine the legitimacy of other members and their vehicles using the tools then available in the field, both the shooting of Cst. Chad Morrison and the Onslow firehall shooting might well have been avoided.

3. Ensure the critical incident plan includes other agencies that could be involved. 

Two people stand on the side of a road next to a white van. A drone sits on the ground next to them.
Barbara McLean, lead for MCC Investigations at Portapique.. Credit: Mass Casualty Commission

In the case of Portapique, the most obvious examples would be the Truro Town Police, Emergency Health Services, local fire departments, all of which knew the backroads and geography of Portapique far better than RCMP officers stationed elsewhere, but were not asked for assistance.

Likewise, the provincial Emergency Management Office in 2020 had the capability to deploy the Alert Ready system to warn the public, but was not asked to do so.

The MCC found that “the RCMP’s failure to publicly share accurate and timely information, including information about the perpetrator’s replica RCMP cruiser and disguise, deprived community members of the opportunity to evaluate risks to their safety and to take measures to better protect themselves.”

4. Recognize that community members are the “true first responders.”

a fake police car
The fake police car. Credit: Mass Casualty Commission

The commissioners note that within 30 minutes of the first shooting in Portapique, 911 call-takers had been told the name of the perpetrator and the fact he was driving a white, replica police car by victim Jamie Blair and the Blair children hiding next door while observing the fires and gunshots in real time. 

Unfortunately, the reports says those first RCMP officers on the scene did not hear radio transmissions detailing the 911 reports from the Blairs and did not realize they should be hunting for a suspect driving a white police car.

At 10:28pm the information the Blairs gave to 911 was corroborated by a survivor of another shooting. Andrew MacDonald also described the replica police car with decals and told the first officers on the scene he recognized the driver as his neighbour. 

“The RCMP command group wrongly concluded that Portapique community members were mistaken when they reported seeing the perpetrator driving a fully marked RCMP cruiser,” reads the report. “They were too quick to embrace an explanation that discounted the clear and consistent information that several eyewitnesses had provided independently of one another.”

In another example of poor communication and failed coordination, the information phoned in by survivor Andrew MacDonald did not get entered into the RCMP’s Operation Communications Centre (OCC) incident-logging computerized system. 

The senior officer in charge of the investigation, Staff-Sgt Steve Halliday, claims he was unaware of MacDonald’s encounter until he was de-briefed by first responders at 3:30 the next morning.

“The failure to recognize that the perpetrator had disguised himself in this way was a product of deficiencies in the RCMP’s process for capturing, sharing, and analyzing information received during a critical incident response,” states the report. For example, call-takers and dispatchers had no readily available means to check and playback recorded calls from earlier in the evening when they were dealing with high-stress calls from children and shooting victims.

When Bible Hill Cst. Rodney Peterson came on shift Sunday morning, he also wasn’t told the killer was driving a white replica police car complete with decals. Had Peterson looked at the onboard computer in his vehicle while driving to another victim in Wentworth, he would have seen a photo of the fake police cruiser, marked 28B11. Instead, the cop and the killer passed each other on the highway.

While the photo of the fake police car was sent out to police at 8:04am, the public wouldn’t see it until 10:17am, following the murders of six more people that Sunday morning. 

The MCC report commented: 

On April 18 and 19, 2020, key RCMP personnel, including the command group and risk managers, did not consider the option for an emergency broadcast to be sent via the Alert Ready system until the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office contacted the RCMP directly. This failure to consider issuing an emergency broadcast reflects a systemic failure on the part of RCMP H Division over several years, to recognize the utility of Alert Ready for its emergency public communications. This systemic failure persisted despite individual efforts to draw the attention of H Division’s leaders to the opportunities afforded by Alert Ready.

The report recommends that the province’s Emergency Management Office work with police agencies to establish a dedicated phone line and website that can be used by the public to report non-urgent information during a critical incident, as well as obtain more information about how to respond to a public alert.

5. Evaluate every critical incident after it takes place to identify lessons learned.

No political interference

The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at delineating clearer responsibilities for the Commissioner of the RCMP and the Minister of Public Safety. 

The report says it is appropriate for the minister and commissioner to have discussions and share information about ongoing investigations, provided the minister is not providing direction to front-line officers about how they go about their work. 

This was prompted after former Commissioner Brenda Lucki berated RCMP Nova Scotia Communications staff and senior officers on April 28, 2020 for failing to do her bidding and disclose the type of firearms used by the perpetrator in the massacre to help the government pass its firearms legislation. 

The MCC determined there was “no political interference” on the part of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. Commissioner Lucki has since resigned. 

The commission did note Lucki’s behaviour during the conference call intensified the friction between officers with Nova Scotia’s H Division and national headquarters, with Ottawa concerned that not enough timely information was being shared with the public and the media about the shootings and the victims. 

Interestingly, the MCC report says National Headquarters did not respond to a request from RCMP Communications in Nova Scotia to provide more staff to help with the volume of media requests in the days following the shootings. The MCC says the national office cited the pandemic as a reason. 

Policing in Nova Scotia

RCMP headquarters on Garland Drive in Dartmouth. Credit: Tim Bousquet

One section of the report deals with policing in Nova Scotia. 

The commission recommends the province meet with municipal police chiefs, the RCMP, and interested groups within six months to discuss what type of policing arrangement Nova Scotia could put in place when the current RCMP contract expires in 2032. 

In the meantime, the MCC recommends the province develop policing standards for municipal police forces and find a means to re-establish working relationships that have often been dysfunctional between the RCMP and municipal police chiefs.

The report urges the provincial government, with financial help from Ottawa, to establish comprehensive mental health services throughout the province. The commissioners state the RCMP is spending too much time responding to incidents involving persons with mental health issues. 

The report notes police officers have a lot of discretion when it comes to assessing and making judgments about what citizens tell them. This point was raised in conversations the commission had with women who talked about their lack of faith in police after they failed to protect women who had come forward with complaints of violent assaults by intimate partners or people they knew. 

The commissioners believe police officers would use discretion more wisely if they had more frequent contact with experienced colleagues:

 The RCMP does not have an effective system of front-line supervision in place for general duty members in H Division. This gap deprives general duty members of day-to-day feedback about their performance, including how they exercise discretion.

There are many more suggestions about how to improve the relationship between police officers and the people they serve. The most obvious question is whether the RCMP and other forces can change enough to regain the lost trust of the public to protect  them from harm. 

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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