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Chronic RCMP officer shortages in rural areas evident in N.S. mass shooting: Mountie

HALIFAX — A senior Mountie who investigated the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia RCMP told a public inquiry on Tuesday that the federal police force suffers chronic staffing shortages in its rural detachments.
Chief Supt. Darren Campbell is questioned by lawyer Robert Pineo at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Gabriel Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kelly Clark

HALIFAX — A senior Mountie who investigated the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia RCMP told a public inquiry on Tuesday that the federal police force suffers chronic staffing shortages in its rural detachments. 

"In terms of the needs and expectations of policing, we are under-resourced," Chief Supt. Darren Campbell told the inquiry investigating the murder of 22 people in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020.

On the first night of the mass shooting, the RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., had the minimum number of staff on shift — four officers — to cover an area roughly two-thirds the size of Prince Edward Island. 

The gunman, driving an RCMP replica vehicle, killed 13 people in the small community of Portapique, N.S., within 45 minutes before escaping and carrying on his murder spree in five other locations the next morning.

Campbell, who was involved in the police response to the mass shooting, said that low staffing levels in rural areas had become a daily worry, largely due to short-term vacancies such as injuries, maternity leave, transfers and illnesses.

On May 31, Sgt. Andy O’Brien, the second in command of the Bible Hill detachment, testified that the number of people assigned to a shift should be either six or seven officers. When asked how often the teams were fully staffed, O’Brien responded, “Never.”

The inquiry also heard that a staff sergeant ordered a fifth officer who arrived at the scene of the shootings on April 18, 2020, to go to a location that would have blocked the killer's escape route. But by the time that officer — who wasn't on duty in that district — arrived, the killer had escaped and fled the area.

Campbell told the inquiry that RCMP managers are often turned down when they request more money from provincial, federal and municipal governments for officers in rural areas. 

Municipalities across the province, however, have raised concerns about the rising costs of RCMP policing services. The provincial government's recent budget passed down more than $20 million in increased RCMP policing costs to municipalities — representing an average increase of 11 per cent in the 2022-23 fiscal year for towns that have contracts with federal police.

Nova Scotia's contract for policing services with the RCMP runs until 2032, and there are regular reviews that are built into an agreement that sees municipalities pay for 70 per cent of RCMP services while the federal government pays 30 per cent.

As well, Campbell testified that he would have liked the public to have been informed sooner than it was about an active shooter driving a replica RCMP cruiser. "I do believe that additional information, specific information, in and around the police vehicle would have been very helpful," said the superintendent, who recently was promoted and transferred to New Brunswick.

He testified that the RCMP commander on the scene had complete authority to order an emergency alert to the public. 

The inquiry has heard that the commander ordered an alert to be issued about the replica vehicle shortly after 8 a.m. on April 19, 2020, but the tweet providing the information only went out at 10:17 a.m. At least six of the victims were killed during that time period.

In his second day on the stand, Campbell faced cross-examination from lawyers representing the victims' families, as well as from lawyers for the spouse of the killer and lawyers for the RCMP members' union and the federal Justice Department.

He acknowledged that families did not receive adequate support from the RCMP after the mass shooting. Asked if families received the minimal level of care, Campbell responded, "I would say no, because if it was good, there would be no complaints," he said.

He said he favours the creation of a "national-level team" of RCMP officers trained to respond with "multiple resources and multiple services" to address the needs of families after major incidents like the mass shooting.

After the shootings, the RCMP assigned a single officer who didn't have formal training to be a liaison between the force and 21 of the families. The RCMP, meanwhile, dispatched two liaison officers for the family of Const. Heidi Stevenson, an RCMP officer who was killed during the tragedy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press