I want the continued incompetence of the RCMP to be addressed. And I want the families of the Portapique victims to know the $40 million that was spent on that Mass Casualty Commission inquiry was wasted. This incident shows there are still police officers who are unwilling to do the work.
— retired RCMP officer Kevin O’Brien

After 35 years with the RCMP and a tour of duty with the United Nations in Kosovo, Kevin O’Brien retired from the force. 

The “incident” to which to which he refers happened this summer. It involves a suspected case of impersonating a police officer, and it played out disturbingly close to the communities where the worst mass murder in recent Canadian history took place. 

O’Brien made detailed notes about what he and his wife Jacquie observed while driving on Highway 104 between Amherst and Truro on June 28, 2023.

“Before the toll booth on the Cobequid Pass, I noticed a white, four-door Ford Taurus with a black push-bar on the front — yes, the same car GW was driving!” writes O’Brien in an email. “The car was travelling well above the speed limit. It was occupied by two white males. They both had shirts on that were a similar colour to those worn by the RCMP, without any identifying marks. They were wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day and driving like idiots.” 

Unlike the white Ford Taurus driven by the mass murderer, this vehicle did not have stripes or RCMP markings on its exterior. It looked like any other white car. 

But because of the black push-bar on front and the speed at which it was moving (well above 120 km/hour), O’Brien worried that anyone who had lost a family member or friend in the massacre could be triggered if they saw this vehicle behaving like a cop car. 

O’Brien says he followed for a while and his wife snapped a photo. When you zoom in, the letters become visible on what is a New Brunswick license plate. And you can discern the push-bar in front. 

At some point, O’Brien says he managed to get ahead of the vehicle. He stopped at the Cobequid tollbooth and asked the attendant to call 911 and report an illegal police vehicle travelling east on Highway 104. The attendant was reluctant and argued “it was ‘a real police car’ that was behind us at the toll plaza.”

O’Brien’s wife then called 911 to report a speeding, white Ford Taurus headed east on highway 104 with a push-bar in front and two male occupants dressed in khaki-coloured shirts. The call was made at about 4:45pm. The call-taker indicated an officer would be dispatched to watch for the vehicle. 

After the Portapique killer had used a replica police car to elude capture, readers of the Examiner will recall one of the measures taken by the provincial government to improve public safety was to pass a law called the Police Identity Management Act. Enacted in May 2022, the purpose is: 

…to prevent the use, possession, sale and fabrication of police articles, police uniforms, police-vehicle markings, and police-vehicle equipment to further unlawful activity. ‘Police-vehicle equipment’ includes prisoner partitions, police-vehicle computers and associated audiovisual components and other interior and exterior equipment used only by a police agency for its vehicles.

By the time the O’Briens reached the intersection of Highway 104 with Highway 102 just before Truro, they noticed a marked RCMP vehicle parked in the median facing east. But relief soon turned to incredulity as the driver of the white Ford Taurus took the exit south toward Truro/Halifax and the parked RCMP vehicle turned to begin driving west toward Amherst. O’Brien pulled over. 

 “I honk my horn and yell to get attention,” says O’Brien. “The driver is a female officer. I ask her ‘what are you doing? Why didn’t you pursue the vehicle?’” He says the RCMP officer responded, “I’m not on that call.” Then shortly afterward, “I’m going the other way.” 

That interaction — and lack of action — bothered the O’Briens so much that the following day, Jacquie O’Brien called the Bible Hill detachment to complain about the lack of pursuit. She also indicated she hoped the occupants of the vehicle would be found and charged, since the license plate of the vehicle was visible in the photo she had taken. 

A few weeks later, on July 17, Kevin O’Brien called the Bible Hill detachment to ask if there was any progress on the case. O’Brien says he spoke with Staff-Sgt Curtis MacKinnon, the commanding officer for Colchester County, the following day. 

O’Brien says MacKinnon told him he was “unaware of this being a matter contrary to the Police Identification Management Act.” 

That surprised O’Brien, but he continued to push for followup and indicated he would be willing to testify in court if the driver was charged. MacKinnon indicated he would have an officer take a statement from O’Brien.

In the past month, an officer from Bible Hill RCMP and an officer from the Halifax police department have both reached out to O’Brien requesting a statement. 

O’Brien’s position is that he is willing to provide a statement — and go to court — but only after the leg work has been done to gather the evidence needed to charge the suspect. 

In O’Brien’s view this includes obtaining the video from the Cobequid toll plaza that would clearly show the push-bar on the car and help identify the occupants, as well as interviewing the toll attendant. No arrests have yet been made.

The Examiner contacted the senior communications advisor for the RCMP in Nova Scotia to ask about what action has been taken since the 911 report was called in on June 28 and what was the status of the O’Briens’ later complaint that due diligence has been lacking. 

Requests to interview a specific RCMP officer are always refused and so that’s the protocol journalists are forced to follow. 

Cpl. Chris Marshall provided this explanation for why the de-commissioned car wasn’t pursued by the officer:

At the time of the complaint, there was no information to suggest a threat of violence, nor that there was an immediate risk to public safety. The suspect vehicle already passed the officer in the median, and vehicle pursuits are high-risk. As such, the need to immediately pursue subjects must always be weighed against potential risk to the public.

O’Brien challenges that statement. He says a “pursuit” may not have been necessary if the police officer had simply signalled to the driver to pull over to the side of the road.

Marshall continued:

And at the same time the complainants reported the suspected decommissioned police car, Colchester County District RCMP officers were responding to three separate motor vehicle collisions (MVCs); it was believed at least two of the collisions involved injuries. Because officers were responding to the MVCs, they weren’t in a position to intercept the vehicle as it made its way east.

Marshall told the Examiner an investigation related to the suspect police car remains active:

The RCMP takes allegations of this nature very seriously, and the investigation into the suspected decommissioned police vehicle is ongoing; our investigators are actively working on this file. In this specific circumstance, the complainants’ allegation would, if proven, be offences under the Police Identity Management Act and the Motor Vehicle Act, both normally punishable by a fine.

The PR explanation for why the officer didn’t pursue the suspect police car comes as news to O’Brien. He hadn’t heard that before, despite several phone conversations he and his wife have had with officers at the Bible Hill detachment. 

As for the investigation being active, O’Brien says he’s been told there was a “glitch” involving the video equipment at the toll booth and officers are working to retrieve the images. 

O’Brien knows many readers may think his decision to go public is because he has an axe to grind with his former employer. That would not be entirely inaccurate. 

O’Brien says during his career with the RCMP, the biggest problem was leadership, and this incident is just another example it needs to be fixed. 

O’Brien also spent more than two years awaiting trial before being acquitted of a historical sexual assault allegation brought forward by a former RCMP colleague. Justice Denise Boudreau was unable to find evidence to support the alleged assault nearly 30 years ago and ruled the complainant’s testimony was not credible. 

O’Brien’s trial made the front page of the Chronicle Herald. His subsequent acquittal took place just as wildfires were raging late in May of this year. There was no newspaper published the day after the decision because the printing plant in Hammonds Plains was out of commission. When the story about the acquittal did make the paper, extensive coverage of the fires pushed it off the front page. 

O’Brien says the reason he is speaking out publicly about what he views as an inadequate police response is because it shows how little has changed in the RCMP, despite the grief and the anger and the dozens of recommendations following an extensive public inquiry. He hopes this information may help families of Portapique victims pursue a pending class action suit against the RCMP and the Province. 

O’Brien, who was involved in many criminal investigations during his years in the RCMP, also believes police officers should simply do the work they’re paid to do. 

In his view, that means following up on tips or information relayed by the public in connection with potential crimes. 

O’Brien was so unimpressed with the response to this incident, he has filed two formal complaints to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. One is with respect to the unknown officer who did not pursue the suspect car; the second relates to what O’Brien describes as a lack of leadership and a demonstrated lack of knowledge about the unauthorized use of a push-bar on a suspect decommissioned police car on the part of Bible Hill’s commanding officer, Staff-Sergeant MacKinnon.

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

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