The RCMP and the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), the agency charged with investigating police criminality, repeatedly failed to follow the law and established protocols after the mass murders of April 2020, says the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report.

The findings relate to three incidents:

• the shoot-up of the Onslow Fire Hall by constables Dave Melanson and Terry Brown
• an allegation of “potential criminal conduct” and “corruption” on the part of unnamed cops in a municipal police force; SIRT refused to investigate the allegation
• the killing of the murderer at the Enfield Big Stop

Onslow Fire Hall

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

On Sunday morning, April 19, 2020, the Onslow Fire Hall was being used as a “Comfort Centre” for people being evacuated from Portapique, scene of the murders the night before.

Dave Westlake, coordinator for the Colchester Regional Emergency Management Organization, had established the centre. RCMP Cst. Dave Gagnon had been assigned to provide security, and sat in his police cruiser, parked in front of the entrance to the hall. Inside the hall, Fire Chief Greg Muise and Deputy Chief Darrell Currie were speaking with Richard Ellison, an evacuee.

At 10:21am, Westlake, wearing a reflective yellow vest, was standing next to Gagnon’s cruiser, holding a clipboard. Just then, Melanson and Brown pulled up in their unmarked Nissan Altima, pulled out their rifles, and started firing. Westlake ran into the fire hall, and Gagnon was eventually able to convince Melanson and Brown that there was no threat.

But bullet holes riddled the outside of the hall, damaged a fire truck inside, and the shooting “also caused considerable distress to those in the fire hall at the time and to neighbours who saw or heard the shooting,” says the report.

The report doesn’t use the term “blue-on-blue shooting” to describe the gunfire at the fire hall because it’s clear that Westlake, a civilian, was the intended target.

When they learned they had not shot at the murderer, Melanson and Brown jumped back into the Altima and called their superior officer, Staff Sergeant Al Carroll, to tell him of the shooting. Carroll asked if they were okay, “but because the perpetrator was active, he told them to keep going,” says the report.

Melanson and Brown sped away, without telling the men inside the hall what had happened. Gagnon, the officer assigned to provide security at the fire hall, didn’t tell the men inside they were safe either; Gagnon repositioned his car and stayed in it. Meanwhile, Muise, Currie, and Ellison hid in the fire hall bay for another 57 minutes, using folding tables as makeshift shields from anticipated gunfire.

“I remember thinking like ‘How am I going to die?’” Currie later told the commission. “Just ‘Am I going to bleed out on the floor of this comfort centre?’”

The report continues:

S/Sgt. Carroll’s single-minded focus on the hunt for the perpetrator meant that he did not obtain full details of the Onslow fire hall shooting, or evaluate whether it was appropriate to instruct Cst. Brown and Cst. Melanson to continue their pursuit of the perpetrator. He was unaware that both members had fired shots, or that they had been fired at a civilian at the Onslow fire hall. He was also unaware that the Onslow fire hall had been designated a comfort centre. In his testimony, S/Sgt. Carroll reflected, “I didn’t ask the questions I should have asked. That falls on me.”

Later, Melanson and Brown mistook a plainclothes Halifax cop for the killer at a police roadblock in Elmsdale. “We’re gonna take ’em down here,” Brown said on the radio, before someone informed him of the mistake.

After the murderer was killed at the Enfield Big Stop, Melanson and Brown ended their shifts and returned to the Bible Hill detachment. It was only then that Carroll and Acting Inspector Steve Halliday met with Melanson and Brown to discuss the shooting in Onslow. So it was also only then that Carroll learned that the shooting involved both a fire hall and a civilian.

All of this violated both RCMP and SIRT regulations, and the Police Act, says the report. Properly, after a police shooting, the officers involved should be separated from each other, and should not discuss the incident until after being interviewed by SIRT.

It wasn’t until 1:25pm that RCMP Insp. Rob Bell notified SIRT of the Onslow shooting, and even then, Bell got the details wrong — he told SIRT Investigator Keith Stothart that the shooting involved Cst. Chad Morrison. It did not. Morrison was shot and injured by the killer on Highway 2 in Shubenacadie, which had nothing to do with Onslow.

At about 3:05pm, Bell called Stothart back to try to clarify the details of the shooting. He correctly identified the shooting officers as Brown and Melanson, but said they were shooting at Gagnon, who was wearing camouflage. In reality, Brown and Melanson were shooting at Westlake, the civilian, who was not wearing camouflage but rather a reflective yellow vest. Brown and Melanson had never even seen Gagnon, who was dressed in a general duty RCMP uniform.

About an hour later, at 4:08pm, another SIRT investigator, Ron Legere, arrived at the Bible Hill RCMP detachment and spoke with Carroll. Legere’s notes from the meeting reflect the same incorrect telling of the incident — that Brown and Melanson had fired upon Gagnon, even though by that time Carroll knew they had shot at a civilian, Westlake.

Legere then met with Brown and Melanson — together — to “explain the process” to them. After that, Legere went to Onslow with Carroll. When they arrived at 4:45pm, Gagnon, still on duty, finally told Legere about Westlake, Muise, Currie, and Ellison.

The ensuing SIRT investigation became utterly muddled with inappropriate communications between the RCMP and SIRT.

As SIRT investigated the fire hall shooting over the next year, the RCMP H (Nova Scotia) Division investigators were also investigating it, and the two teams of investigators were sharing information back and forth.

The Police Act clearly states that SIRT is not to give investigative details or notes to the police agency being investigated until after the investigation is complete, notes the MCC’s report.

One inappropriate communication came when Brown, who was being investigated, called Legere, who was investigating Brown. When Legere ended his stint at SIRT and was replaced by SIRT investigator Kevin Hovey, Brown called Hovey.

On November 19, 2020, Hovey took notes of a call from Brown, which read:

Received a call from Subject Officer Terry Brown looking for an update. I explained to him that I am waiting [for] a Report from the Use of Force expert and the transcripts for the radio Broadcasts. He wanted to know if the investigation would be done by the end of the year. I explained that I could not promise that as I would have to review the file when these reports were completed and determine if there are further investigative avenues, the[n] a report goes to the Director to make the final decision.

An investigator gave details of the investigation to the subject of the investigation, but no one seemed to think that was inappropriate, either at SIRT or in the RCMP.

The Use of Force expert was Joel Johnston, a former Vancouver cop. SIRT received Johnston’s report in January 2021 and gave it to the RCMP Hazardous Occurrence Investigation Team (HOIT), which was investigating the Onslow shooting as a violation of the Canada Labour Code, an investigation that continues to this day.

HOIT is supposed to be independent of H Division, but HOIT reported to C/Insp. John Robin, who was head of the RCMP’s Issues Management Team — Robin is married to Chief Supt. Janis Gray, then head of H Division.

SIRT Director Felix Cacchione approved giving Johnson’s Use of Force report to HOIT on Jan. 11, 2021. Ten days later, on Jan. 21, Robin and other members of HOIT met with SIRT to discuss the Use of Force report, with the intent to discredit it, in part by giving SIRT this memo.

When SIRT issued its report on the Onslow fire hall shooting on March 3, 2021, it completely absolved Brown and Melanson of wrongdoing.

The SIRT report fails in its responsibility to inform the public, says the MCC’s final report:

For instance, a member of the public cannot know from reading the report what evidence underlies the SiRT’s finding that prior to firing their carbines, the constables yelled “police” and “show your hands,” and nor is it apparent that the SiRT received contradictory evidence on this point. There are no photographs, radio transcript excerpts, or witness statement excerpts included in the report, and it does not refer to any police training or policy.

The Onslow SiRT Report states that the SiRT reviewed an expert report on the use of force. However, it does not set out the expert’s opinion, or state whether the SiRT relied on that opinion in reaching its conclusion that the constables’ use of force was authorized under section 25 of the Criminal Code. Through the Commission’s process, we learned that then SiRT director Felix Cacchione did not rely on the expert opinion the SiRT obtained in the Onslow fire hall shooting investigation because he was concerned that it was “kind of one sided.” …

The Onslow SiRT Report identifies factors that support its conclusion that the con- stables had reasonable grounds to fire their carbines at Mr. Westlake. However, the report does not indicate whether the SiRT considered, accepted, or rejected any evidence that did not support the reasonableness of the constables’ use of force.

“When the SiRT decides not to lay charges against a police officer involved in a serious incident, it is critical that the decision is explained to the public with enough information to allow the public to meaningfully understand and evaluate the SiRT’s reasoning,” says the MCC.

‘Potential criminal conduct’ of police

Truro Police Service, Truro, Nova Scotia. Photo: Suzanne Rent

The MCC report also documents that SIRT refused to investigate an allegation of “potential criminal conduct” and “corruption” on the part of cops in a municipal police force.

The report does not name the cops or the police force, but one could reasonably surmise that it involves the Truro Police Service.

Truro police and the RCMP had bad blood between them for some time, which was exasperated by a suggestion that the Truro Police Service take over rural policing from the RCMP in Colchester County.

The allegation of wrongdoing came in June 2020, when RCMP Supt. Constantine (Costa) Dimopoulos, a member of the Issues Management Team, “emailed some RCMP members to solicit feedback about their operational concerns related to the mass casualty response.” But he only got one email back, so he started meeting with officers in person at the Amherst and Bible Hill detachments.

But Dimopoulos abandoned those efforts when he “received information from an RCMP member alleging prior misconduct by members of a municipal police agency,” and referred the allegation to SIRT.

“The substance of the allegations do not relate to the mass casualty or the perpetrator; therefore, the identities of the witnesses, individuals, and police agency that are the subject of the allegations are not requisite to the Commission’s work,” reads the MCC report.

However, according to the report, “the information provided by the RCMP about alleged wrongdoing was specific and included the name of a witness who was independent of the RCMP.”

Here’s what we know.

On July 2, 2020, C/Supt. Chris Leather, C/Supt. Janice Gray, and Dimopoulos met with Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, the commanding officer of H Division, to brief her on the allegations.

On July 10, 2020, H  Division sent a situation report to RCMP national headquarters saying that H Division “had received information about members of a municipal police service that included potential Police Act violations as well as allegations of ‘a serious criminal nature,’ and that H  Division would be referring these allegations to the SiRT.”

On July 13, 2020, H Division sent SIRT a package that included Dimopoulos’s notes and a transcript of an interview of the person making the allegations.

On July 17, 2020, Dimopoulos and Leather had a phone conversation with SIRT director Felix Cacchione.

Cacchione initially said he was worried about the cost of a SIRT investigation into the allegations.

Leather and the others at H Division recognized that the timing of the allegations was terrible — they came just as intense media attention was being turned towards the RCMP, and as the bad blood between Truro Police and the RCMP was becoming an issue in the understanding of the police response to the the mass murders. But, Leather told the MCC:

But I have to say, it is what it is. It’s unfortunate that the information came to us at that particular time, but this was not something that we sought; it came to us through the normal course of our reviews, and we were seized with the information and the referral needed to be made. And yes, the timing – most unfortunate, but we had to make the referral, we did so. And these were, this was the nature, as I say, of the discussion with Mr. Cacchione.

Cacchione evidently didn’t like the timing either, and decided that SIRT wouldn’t open a formal investigation because, reads the MCC report:

…it appeared to be an “ongoing dispute” between the RCMP and a municipal police agency and “a substantial offence [was] not clear.” The notes also state that one of the witness statements related to the referral was “not very accurate,” although another witness statement “was better.”

In short, SIRT wasn’t going to open an investigation because it felt it was being used as a weapon in a battle between two competing police agencies, potential criminal conduct of police notwithstanding.

The MCC didn’t learn of the allegations until August 2022. The report says that even now, those allegations have not been investigated by anyone — not SIRT, not the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, not the municipal police agency, not the RCMP. The MCC has referred the matter to Nova Scotia Justice Minister Brad Johns.

The Examiner has asked John’s office for comment; if we get a response we’ll update this article.

Read an RCMP memo on the allegations here.

Big Stop

A gas station
The Enfield Big Stop Credit: Mass Casualty Commission

The MCC’s final report also faults SIRT for its investigation of the killing of the murderer at the Enfield Big Stop.

In short, the MCC’s issue is that SIRT relied on the RCMP’s Forensic Identification Services (FIS) to process the scene, instead of using the FIS from the Halifax Regional Police Service.

“The decision to use RCMP Forensic identification Services also increased the risk that the public would perceive the SiRT process of investigating RCMP members as lacking independence from the RCMP,” reads the report.

Additionally, RCMP officers collected evidence at the scene before the FIS arrived, contrary to regulations and best practices.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. It’s a miracle that many more were not killed as the police played shoot ’em up in their pursuit of the killer.