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Mass shooting inquiry: RCMP facing scrutiny for delayed release of public warnings

Commission counsel Roger Burrill presents information about the police paraphernalia used by Gabriel Wortman, at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, April 25, 2022. The inquiry is expected this week to examine one of the most contentious aspects of the RCMP's handling of the tragedy: public communications.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — The inquiry investigating the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting will examine this week one of the most contentious aspects of the RCMP's handling of the tragedy: public communications.

The Mounties have faced intense criticism for delaying the release of key information about the killer during his rampage, and there was confirmation last month that a senior-ranking officer is under investigation for his role in controlling the flow of information.

"There is still speculation by the public about the lack of transparency about the communication process," said Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Brandon University in Manitoba who teaches about mass media and police. "This is not good for re-establishing trust in the RCMP."

The commission of inquiry has heard that late on April 18, 2020, the RCMP issued its first public statement about the start of the killer's rampage in rural Portapique, N.S., where the first 911 call originated at 10:01 p.m. In all, 13 people were murdered in Portapique that night.

Even though the police force was aware victims had been killed and an active shooter could be still at large, the RCMP posted a seemingly innocuous tweet at 11:32 p.m. saying officers were investigating a "firearms complaint" — a relatively common occurrence in a rural setting.

As well, a series of 911 calls and eyewitness accounts had clearly indicated the killer was driving a car that looked like a marked RCMP cruiser. But that information was kept from the public until the next day, mainly because the Mounties couldn't confirm what they had been told or simply couldn't believe it, the inquiry has heard.

According to witness testimony and documents released by the commission, the Mounties gave some consideration to issuing a more detailed public warning that night but never did.

Shortly after midnight, however, RCMP officers were given the name and a photo of the suspect. And at 1:09 a.m., police across the province were warned about an "active shooter incident in progress" involving an "armed and dangerous" suspect associated with an "old police car."

According to the commission's investigation, RCMP discussions about "media messaging" took on a renewed urgency the next day around 7:30 a.m. when police received a photo of the killer's replica patrol car and were told it was filled with weapons and could be anywhere in the province.

At that point, RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather got involved in public messaging, according to a recently released summary of evidence.

In personal notes he provided to the inquiry, Leather confirms speaking with Lia Scanlan, director of the Nova Scotia RCMP strategic communications division at 7:43 a.m.

"Info out to public — tweets," his notes say. "Picture and name — not there right now."

At 8 a.m., Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum was asked to speak to Scanlan about crafting a media release with photos of the suspect and his car. But there was an hour-long delay, which has yet to be explained.

Almost 10 hours after the gunman killed his first victim, the Mounties issued their first tweet declaring an "active shooter situation" in Portapique at 8:02 a.m. But the tweet did not mention the suspect's name or anything about his getaway car. As well, it did not make it clear that he was on the move.

Relatives of some of the victims have argued that had the RCMP provided earlier public warnings with that key information, several lives could have been saved.

At 8:04 a.m., the RCMP issued an internal alert to its members stating the suspect was potentially using a fully marked Ford Taurus police cruiser and could be anywhere in the province. The same message was then sent to all police departments in the province.

By 8:54 a.m., the RCMP sent a tweet that included a photo identifying 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman as the suspect, but there was still no mention of his car.

The inquiry has heard that just after 9 a.m., Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers contacted Staff Sgt. Al Carroll to ask if a media release was coming about the car. Carroll, the district commander for Colchester County, later responded: "Thought was given to give release about vehicle, but decision was made not to."

It remains unclear who made that decision. At least one senior officer has claimed no such decision was taken.

According to an evidence summary released May 13, the commission is now investigating "whether the public release of the replica RCMP cruiser information was at any point delayed or denied, by whom, and why."

Senior RCMP officers have told the inquiry they were reluctant to release details about the vehicle because they were worried such information could panic the public and flood the 911 system.

"It's an illustration of the RCMP not trusting the common sense of the public," said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at the Dalhousie University law school in Halifax. "There's no doubt there would be some panic ... but I think they should have had a little more confidence in the good sense of the public."

Regardless of the Mounties' rationale, questions remain about what happened after 9:11 a.m. when Leather, the RCMP's second-in-command in the province that morning, sent an email requesting a copy of the alert sent to police about the suspect and his replica vehicle.

According to the commission, another investigation "is ongoing into the role of Chief Supt. Leather ... in relation to the release of information about the replica RCMP cruiser."

Scott Blandford, a former police sergeant in London, Ont., said he couldn't comment on whether chief superintendents in the RCMP should be involved in public communication, but he said involving police chiefs in media releases wasn't the practice when he was with the London Police Service.

"As a general rule, the incident commander is the ranking officer on scene, and only in exceptionally rare circumstances are they overruled by a higher-ranking officer," said Blandford, who teaches policing at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

The inquiry has heard that a draft tweet showing a photo of the replica cruiser was approved at 9:49 a.m. But again there was another unexplained delay.

It wasn't until 10:17 a.m. that the RCMP sent a tweet showing a photo of the car. That key warning came 12 hours after the Mounties were first told about the vehicle, and more than two hours after they received the photo. By then, another six people had been murdered that morning.

Two Mounties fatally shot the killer at a gas station north of Halifax at 11:26 a.m. At that time, the police force was crafting an Alert Ready emergency message to send to radios, TVs and cellphones in the province. But the message was never sent.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2022.

— With files from Michael Tutton.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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