Two of the RCMP officers in charge of the response to Nova Scotia’s mass shooting say they decided against setting up roadblocks, for fear doing so would make it easier for the gunman to kill even more people.
Retired staff sergeants Jeff West and Kevin Surette testified Wednesday before the Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting, when a gunman killed 22 people in the province.
The pair were asked Wednesday about their thoughts on using roadblocks around 10:20 a.m. on April 19, after the gunman had killed strangers he encountered as well as acquaintances.
Surette said he pushed to not block roads like Highway 102, the main artery through Truro, even though that was one choke point between the northern and southern parts of the province.
He said such a roadblock could easily have generated a line of cars two kilometres long. Given that they knew the gunman was killing “at random,” Surette said didn’t want to expose anyone to further danger.
“We knew that there was likely going to be a shootout at some point,” Surette said Wednesday.
“We didn’t want a shootout to happen in front of a lineup of civilians parked on the 102, probably getting out of their cars and looking around to see what’s going on.”
He said the “lesser of two evils” was the plan they decided on: placing officers at strategic points along the highways to watch intersections.
Both West and Surette said the 13-hour critical incident that evolved into a manhunt for a mobile shooter was a situation they reacted to based on their decades of experience — but it was not something the RCMP had ever trained them for.
The scenario that Surette feared — citizens pulling over to ask questions at a shooting scene — happened later that morning around 10:50 a.m. in Shubenacadie, where RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson was killed by the gunman after a gunfight between the two. Joey Webber, a man who pulled over to try and help as he passed by, was also killed.
Inquiry documents show multiple people in nearby cars saw the gunman’s shootout with Stevenson on a highway interchange, drove directly by while he was still there, or were roaming around on foot and approached the RCMP officers that were later guarding the scene.
West and Surette were the two on-call critical incident commanders (CIC) the night the shootings began on April 18. West was reached first by Steve Halliday, a now-retired staff sergeant, who called him at 10:42 p.m. to tell him there was a likely active shooter situation in Portapique.
West let Surette know he was being called in to take charge of the incident and bring in resources like the emergency response team, and arrived at the makeshift command post in Great Village near Portapique after 1 a.m. Surette, who was based in Yarmouth, made his way to Great Village a few hours later to offer West support.
They also addressed gaps in information, including that they weren’t aware until eight hours after the fact that a witness to the gunman had been shot but survived.
Key information not passed on from early hours
The inquiry has heard that Portapique residents Andrew and Kate MacDonald were shot at by the gunman from his mock cruiser, but managed to drive away quickly and encountered the first RCMP officers who responded to the community just before 10:30 p.m. on April 18.
The MacDonalds were on the phone with 911 when the shooting happened, and Kate eventually was transferred to risk manager Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill. She told him the gunman was in a police car that had stripes.
Both MacDonalds spoke with officers at the scene, and Kate told Const. Vicki Colford about a back road out of the community that came out near an old church on Highway 2. Colford radioed that information out at 10:48 p.m.
Police didn’t interview Andrew again until after 5 a.m. on the 19th, and West said he finally learned about his information around 6:30 a.m. on April 19 when Halliday told him.
Halliday testified Tuesday that he also hadn’t known about Andrew’s existence until around 3:30 a.m. in a debrief with the first team of officers who’d met the MacDonalds in Portapique.
Commissioners ask how to fill gap
West said he never was told about the Colford broadcast about a secondary exit, and couldn’t “speculate” on why he wasn’t told about Andrew’s evidence until hours later.
“It’s a bit surprising that you would arrive and take command three hours in without the information about Andrew MacDonald reaching you, and certainly that it doesn’t reach you until the following morning,” Commissioner Kim Stanton said to West on Wednesday.
“What is the structural gap that would ensure that that kind of information is captured and shared?”
West said he doesn’t have a “simple answer,” as he wasn’t able to read any reports on the drive to Great Village and relied on conversations with Halliday to fill him in. When West got to the command post, he said there was no time to review 911 transcripts or look through earlier radio logs.
West suggested someone in a crime analyst role scanning through the huge volume of information and picking out the vital pieces would have been helpful, rather than “relying on word of mouth.” But, he said there are no officers assigned to that role within critical incidents he’s aware of.
“Clearly there’s a gap there,” said Surette.
Issues with helicopter communication
West and Surette talked about issues they had in trying to get through on the police radio channels to share important updates throughout the incident. West said poor radio coverage is a reality across rural parts of the country, and Surette said too many people talking over one another has been a problem he’s seen for years.
This technical issue also appeared when Surette said he was trying to direct the provincial Department of Natural Resources that took to the air after 6 a.m. on April 19. Because the chopper didn’t have an encrypted police channel, Surette was communicating to the pilot on another channel through a portable radio and there were several times he either couldn’t get through or there was a major delay.
While Surette said he was successful in directing the helicopter to Glenholme where the gunman had visited a couple’s home, it arrived too late to spot him. At one point, Surette was trying to get the chopper to crime scenes on Plains Road and wasn’t aware it had stopped to refuel.
The setup was “not ideal,” he said.
Alert not in ‘toolbox’
West and Surette said Wednesday they did not consider sending a public emergency alert about the shootings through the province’s Emergency Management Office (EMO), which at the time was the only agency with the Alert Ready system in the province.
Surette said he’d gotten an alert about COVID-19 on his cellphone just weeks beforehand, but didn’t think the alert capability had reached into policing.
The inquiry heard last week that at the time of the shooting, alerts could be sent to all Nova Scotia cellphones on 4G networks, as well as TV and radio stations. EMO staff made presentations on the alert system to RCMP multiple times in the years before the tragedy, and offered them the ability to send alerts on their own, but that was turned down.
“It was not a tool in our toolbox at that time,” West said.
West also said he was not aware of exactly what media releases or public communications were going out about the incident, since he’d delegated that task to Halliday.
The RCMP and Halifax Regional Police can now issue their own alerts.
The inquiry’s public hearings will resume next Wednesday.
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