‘Unique circumstance’ of NS mass killings led to RCMP communication challenges, superintendent testifies

A top-ranking RCMP officer testified Monday that there were missed opportunities for communications in the police response to the April 2020 mass killings in Nova Scotia.

Supt. Darren Campbell also repeated the RCMP position that a public alert was not issued over the Alert Ready system because use of that system was not a tool in the RCMP toolbox at the time.

“Everyone that’s involved is responsible for feeding information to the critical incident commander,” Campbell, the RCMP support services officer for all of Nova Scotia at the time of the mass killings and one of five superintendents within the division at that time, told the public inquiry Monday.

Campbell said there is a high volume of crucial information coming into the critical incident commander, who is assisted by a team of people in a command post, which in the case of the mass killings was established in Great Village, about 10.5 kilometres northeast of Portapique .

Retired staff sergeants Jeff West and Kevin Surette were the on-call critical incident commanders on the night of April 18, 2020, when the gunman, Dartmouth dentist Gabriel Wortman, killed 13 people in the western Colchester County community of Portapique during a 45-minute rampage.

RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell fields a question from commission lawyer Rachel Young during the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry in Halifax on Monday. – Kelly Clark / The Canadian Press

The perpetrator overnighted in a partially concealed Debert parking lot before killing nine more victims on the morning of April 19. He was shot and by the RCMP at the Enfield Big Stop later that morning.

Commission lawyer Rachel Young brought Campbell to the independent MacNeil review of the RCMP shootings in Moncton in June 2014, referencing a lack of communication and information sharing as impediments to the police response, along with the lack of a common operating plan and a clear sense of who was in charge.

The same impediments have been consistently chronicled during the five months in which the public inquiry has been hearing direct and documented testimony and information.

“The implementation of the risk manager program within the operations communication center would have been a measure to hopefully reduce the amount of confusion,” Campbell said when asked what changes were made between 2014 and the time of the killings in Nova Scotia.

“The reality is that when an active event commences, the first responding members are patrol members and the operation communication center will be the first people aware of the incident that’s unfolding and it will take some time for the activation of these specialized resources, like the critical incident program,” Campbell said.

“There is no such thing as perfect and clearly there were some things that were missed along the way that weren’t necessarily fully understood by the critical incident commander by the time that the critical incident commander was able to take command authority,” he said of the mass killings in Nova Scotia.

Campbell said other changes since Moncton dealt with operational awareness.

“The normal critical incident response is usually a singular individual who is barricaded in a residence, it’s fairly controlled, fairly contained, and if you’re dealing with not as much carnage, there would be less confusion,” he said.

“In this particular case, with the level of devastation and how things were unfolding in the manner in which they were, that added to the complexity, it certainly added to the challenges in terms of communicating that information.”

Campbell said RCMP members did not have specific training in containing a mobile shooter.

“The majority of their experience would be contained, focused critical synopsis,” he said of training. “I do believe that a mobile active shooter, who has been active, dormant, reactivated, is not a common event.”

Since April 2020, Campbell said he has scoured the internet searching for mass casualty events with similarities to the Nova Scotia killings but he hasn’t found many, if any.

“This was a very unique circumstance,” Campbell said, adding that police response challenges were exacerbated by the fact that the perpetrator was driving a replica RCMP vehicle and impersonating an RCMP member.

Campbell was to testify throughout the day Monday and return Tuesday to complete his testimony. RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather is to testify Wednesday and Thursday.

More to come

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