During the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia the RCMP had little contact with the closest municipal police force in Truro, prompting lingering questions from residents and people who lost loved ones about why more wasn’t done to ask for help and set up roadblocks around the town.
On Monday morning the public inquiry examining the rampage that left 22 people dead, injured others and devastated communities, is examining the Truro Police Service’s role and communications between the two police forces.
Truro’s police chief, Dave MacNeil, is testifying about the events of April 18-19, 2020.
He said while RCMP eventually asked for Truro to lock down the town after they realized the gunman was on the move the morning of April 19, he had no idea what that meant in practical terms.
With no details about which roads to block, McNeil said it seemed like a pretty wide-open statement.
“It was very vague and kind of time sensitive — it takes some time to lock down a community,” McNeil said.
“It’s a little bit of a last-minute Hail Mary type of a thing, I think.”
CBC News previously reported the municipal police agency’s only direct involvement overnight was to station an officer at the town’s hospital following a request from the emergency department when staff there learned RCMP were searching for someone after a shooting in Portapique, N.S., about 38 kilometres away.
The hospital remained locked down into the morning and Truro police officers guarded the entrance. Some family members of those being treated spoke to them in the overnight hours.
Call logs obtained by CBC News show that minutes after the first call from the hospital at midnight, a Truro corporal called the RCMP for the first time. About an hour later, an RCMP dispatcher called back to advise they were responding to an active shooter situation and the suspect was linked to a former police car that might have a type of decal on it.
Early in the morning on April 19, Truro police Cpl. Rick Hickox encountered two Mounties from Antigonish who were looking for directions to the dispatch centre after notifying someone in Truro their loved ones had been killed.
The pair told him there were four or five people killed in Portapique and that RCMP didn’t know where the gunman was, he told the inquiry. “We had no indication the person was outside Colchester [County],” he told the commission.
Between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m., the RCMP called Truro police five times, relaying information gathered about the suspect’s vehicles, and it sent three “be on the look out” (BOLO) bulletins to police agencies in the province. Shortly after 8 a.m. the notice described the replica police cruiser and said Gabriel Wortman was “arrestable for homicide and is armed and dangerous.”
Records released to the CBC through freedom of information legislation also showed that MacNeil emailed the two highest-ranking Mounties in the province at 9:50 a.m. offering assistance. Chief Supt. Chris Leather responded at 10 a.m. saying they believed the suspect was “pinned down” in Wentworth.
Leather and Supt. Darren Campbell later clarified in a June 2020 press conference that Leather’s comment related to believing the suspect was contained at a home in Glenholme, N.S., a community 34 kilometres closer to Truro.
But at 10 a.m., the gunman was actually in Debert, N.S., even closer to Truro, where he killed Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, Victorian Order of Nurses colleagues who were in separate vehicles on Plains Road.
He then drove into Truro and continued south toward Halifax, injuring one RCMP officer and killing three more people: Const. Heidi Stevenson, Joey Webber and Gina Goulet.
Receiving that email at a time when officers in Truro were talking about calling in more people — and about 20 minutes after they heard from an RCMP dispatcher that the suspect might be heading toward the town — changed his team’s perspective, MacNeil previously told the Mass Casualty Commission.
“We kind of took a collective deep breath and figured this was a done deal,” he said in an August 2021 interview.
“The decisions I made the rest of the day were based on that email.”
Several senior Mounties have told the inquiry just how hectic it was responding to the shootings and in particular how things shifted quickly Sunday morning after they realized the gunman was on the move again and targeting people on the roadside.
On Monday, MacNeil was asked about his thoughts on the provincial emergency alert system, which would have sent an alert directly to radios, televisions and LTE-connected cellphones.
Alert should have been sent: Truro chief
He said at the time of the mass shooting he knew that police could request an emergency alert through the province —which is at odds with what multiple RCMP officers have told the inquiry.
One RCMP officer told commission investigators in an interview that the Alert Ready system was “not a thing” for the RCMP at the time, and it would have been “catastrophic” to send one.
MacNeil said while he had not used the system himself before April 2020, he knew that the provincial Emergency Management Office (EMO) managed it. Depending on the specifics of the case, MacNeil said an alert “would have been a thought, for sure” if there had been an active shooter situation in Truro,
If he knew EMO was calling to see if an alert should be sent, which is what the office asked RCMP on April 19, MacNeil said he would listen to EMO as “the experts” and take them up on sending one out.
The RCMP did in fact notify the Nova Scotia government that it wanted to send out an emergency alert, but that happened only five minutes before police shot the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. The alert was never issued.
When asked if he believes an alert could have saved lives, MacNeil said “‘I do,” echoing the position of many victims’ families.
The lawyer for the federal attorney general suggested it was a “reality” that the 911 dispatch systems would get overwhelmed after emergency alerts, pointing to an alert about suspected gunfire sent days after the rampage. In that situation, RCMP reported both 911 and police dispatch had been overwhelmed with 185 calls and only 131 were processed, even with an extra call taker.
MacNeil said while that may or may not be the case, going forward there’s lots of opportunity for the province to bring out public education campaigns explaining that citizens shouldn’t call 911 after alerts.
Even at the time of the shooting, MacNeil said the RCMP should have considered all options and sent an alert.
“We’re going to have people call, but you have to outweigh the balance — we have an immediate loss and an immediate threat to life, or do we worry about flooding the 911 system?” MacNeil said.
The RCMP and Halifax Regional Police now have direct access to the Alert Ready system, but the Truro Police have not done the same. MacNeil said he believes the system works fine as it is now, which involves his service calling EMO to request that certain messages are sent.
Back on April 19, 2020, a Sunday morning, it was difficult for Truro police to follow where the gunman had been spotted, especially after the email about Wentworth, and that they did not receive clear tasks from the RCMP, MacNeil told the commission.
“The information we were getting was fragmented and it really didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” the police chief told inquiry investigators.
The police service did ask the officers working that morning to drive around the town and tell people who were out walking they should go back inside. MacNeil said fortunately most businesses were closed because of COVID but his dispatchers did try to call the big stores that were open to advise them of a situation in the county.
Commission documents show Truro police called in one extra person overnight and five extra officers Sunday morning.
Request to lock down Truro
At 10:37 a.m., an RCMP dispatcher called a Truro dispatcher to pass on that Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, the risk manager working out of the RCMP’s Operational Communications Centre, wanted the municipal police force “to lock down” the town.
By then the gunman had already driven through downtown Truro, but neither police agency knew that at the time.
When Truro police Cpl. Ed Cormier asked what locking down meant, the RCMP dispatcher suggested “maybe you can do some roadblocks on the main,” according to the transcripts previously released to CBC.
Truro police Insp. Darrin Smith told the commission he felt he didn’t have enough information about setting up roadblocks and felt it was “obvious … the information … was all over the board, all over the map.”
“It was almost like it was a panic statement thrown out by somebody to the dispatcher without any real forethought of what they were asking us to do,” Smith said in his interview with the inquiry.
Smith said up until that point, he’d thought the threat was half an hour away and that only then did he learn about the deaths in Wentworth and Debert.
In an affidavit filed in response to a lawsuit launched by families, Supt. Darren Campbell described the exchange as telling Truro “to advise them to secure the perimeter of Truro.”
MacNeil called the RCMP’s characterization as “a bit of a misrepresentation of the truth.” He said it would’ve been helpful to have been told something more specific about where to set up a roadblock, when interviewed by the inquiry.
Within half an hour, Truro police did respond to a possible sighting of the gunman at a Sobeys in Lower Truro, N.S., that was unfounded.
On Monday, MacNeil was asked whether it would have been “reasonable” to imagine on April 19 that the gunman might have been headed their way, given his last sighting in the Glenholme area.
“One would assume they had proper containment,” MacNeil said, which drew an outburst of applause from public spectators in the room where the hearing was held.
When the gunman drove through Truro, he passed close to the police station but did not cross paths with the three Truro cruisers out in the community, the public inquiry found after analyzing GPS data from the vehicles.
MacNeil did not find out the gunman drove through the downtown until the RCMP released surveillance photos of the replica cruiser captured from local businesses in a press conference nearly a week after the shootings.
He felt “completely blindsided” and would have appreciated a heads up from the RCMP, he told the commission in his interview.
In it, the police chief also spoke about how he felt the RCMP was resistant to his force’s plans to release documents detailing a 2011 warning about the gunman through freedom of information.
Issues between municipal forces, RCMP
On Monday, MacNeil outlined how the mass shooting and RCMP actions after the event, as well as a difference of opinion on unrelated policy issues, has soured the relationship between the Mounties and Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association (NSCPA).
“It’s been deteriorating in the last two years, there’s no doubt about it,” MacNeil said.
Some issues included that the RCMP wanted the Nova Scotia chiefs to say the Alert Ready system fundamentally doesn’t work for police use, MacNeil said. But the Nova Scotia chiefs disagreed with that narrative, and as they continued differing with the Mounties on policy issues the association voted to re-designate the RCMP to an associate member with no voting power in a spring 2022 meeting.
MacNeil said Monday the RCMP can still participate in all kinds of discussions and committees, as well as training through the NSCPA, and day-to-day front line cooperation between the RCMP and municipal forces isn’t impacted.
MacNeil has also told the inquiry he felt the RCMP overstepped when they asked to send a team to examine the Truro service’s police files following the unearthing of a bulletin containing information about a 2011 tip that the gunman wanted to “kill a cop.”
The Mass Casualty Commission’s report also explained why a provincial court judge in Truro was warned about the gunman being a possible threat.
Sheriff warned judge to leave home
Judge Alain Bégin previously represented the gunman’s uncle in a civil dispute involving a property in Portapique.
The inquiry determined Sgt. Jason Power, who worked for Nova Scotia Sheriff Services, anticipated his team might have to interact with the gunman and started a risk assessment after seeing an RCMP tweet identifying him.
When he found reference to the civil case and Bégin, he notified his supervisor who then called the judge.
After learning about the replica cruiser, the supervisor, Supt. Cody Zielie, told Bégin to go for a drive and later followed up to let the judge know the gunman had been killed.