An active shooter was on the loose in Portapique, Nova Scotia, buildings were burning and three RCMP officers were left to advance in the chaos on April 18, 2020.
“I’m going to be pretty frank with you here. Three guys found themselves in a very serious situation. That doesn’t seem like a lot of guys to me,” one of the officers, Const. Adam Merchant, an investigating attorney said in an interview recently released to the public by the commission investigating the shooting.
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He described a terrifying night as he and two other officers drove down the main Portapique road in search of a man who shot and killed 13 people that night, before killing nine more the following day.
As the mass shooting investigation prepares to resume hearings on Monday, the officer’s direct comments have raised questions about the RCMP’s understaffing in Nova Scotia and caught the attention of a lawyer for the families of the victims.
“That’s a question we’d like to have fleshed out,” Rob Pineo, the attorney for the families of 14 of the 22 victims, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Merchant told commission lawyer Roger Burrill last August that the planned complement of six people on his shift was often unavailable, leaving the ‘minimum’ of four members on duty to cover an area two-thirds the size of Prince Edward Island. “Six is good when you have six, but often you don’t have six,” he explained.
On the evening of the shooting, the fourth constable on duty remained at the entrance to Portapique to contain the area.
On Monday, Merchant and Constables Stuart Beselt and Aaron Patton are scheduled to testify at the inquest as part of a “witness panel,” and Pineo hopes to have the opportunity to expand on those comments. “The families believe that if more personnel had been on the ground that night, the results would have been different,” Pineo said.
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He also speculates that having two other officers on the scene could have enabled some of them to turn left at a fork in the main road and possibly intercept the killer. Instead, the three officers all continued straight on Portapique Beach Road, while the killer – unbeknownst to them – had moved to Orchard Beach Drive, the road that went left at the main intersection.
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“If more personnel had been deployed and able to pursue the perpetrator at that time, who knows how the outcome of the massacre might have changed?” said Pineo.
All officers have been trained to use rifles and to respond to active shooters, a regular part of RCMP training since the 2014 killings of three constables in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Merchant said in his interview that he feared more officers would enter the scene because they could shoot each other.
But he added: “We were kind of running around everywhere we could see. And I think it would have been beneficial to be able to have more members there.
“If they (the supervisors) had something stalking us, maybe they could say, ‘Hey, you’re getting too close to such and such,'” Merchant told Burrill.
Fellow officer Beselt, however, told the investigating attorney that there was a risk of officers shooting each other if they separated.
“When you don’t know where he is, you don’t want teams tripping over each other,” he said during his interview last July.
Pineo hopes that cross-examination under oath of frontline constables and their superiors can explain the differing views. “It seems to me that different teams could have been deployed with code words or with communications between the different groups showing where they were at different times,” he said.
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Records sent to the public inquiry indicate that the local municipality first raised concerns years ago about understaffing due to absences, transfers and illness.
“In recent years, the City Council has been concerned about the increasing number of officer positions which were filled by name but did not provide an active serving officer,” said Colchester County Mayor Christine Blair. , in a letter dated December 14, 2021 to the investigation. The “municipality has been raising this concern with the RCMP…since 2015”.
A 2019 internal review of Colchester District RCMP found that, on average, the district’s 28 front-line officers were off work for 171 hours a year due to illness and various forms of family leave. The review then suggested that six additional officers were needed to ensure compliance with community policing standards.
Blair said in a statement to The Canadian Press last month that the issue of hiring more officers had been referred to an outside consultant for review.
She said while the council was “receptive” to hiring more officers, they want to create a policing system where more officers are based in smaller communities around the county, rather than the current system _ more centralized _ than the RCMP uses, where most staff are based in Bible Hill, NS.
She said the municipality will soon decide either on a “modified” RCMP policing system or move to a municipal police force.
“He looks forward to receiving recommendations from the Mass Casualty Commission on policing,” Blair’s statement said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 27, 2022.
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