This simple, semi-apologetic phrase, has become the background theme weaving through all the testimony at the Portapique “Mass Casualty Commission” in Nova Scotia.
I have written previously about the Commission and the obvious misgivings which had surfaced after the government tried to review the twenty-two deaths in private. The government was deaf to the mass of public sentiment, did not predict the hue and cry and accusations of cover-up, but reluctantly in the end, gave in to its now current public format. But again, this was only after being pilloried in the press by the victim families.
It is indeed a compelling story, but one laden with unfathomable and uncomfortable sadness, and the government was clearly reluctant to tell it. That reluctance is still there, reflected in the current set-up of the Commission who is casting a gauzy lens over the testimony. This is a watered down version of what normally constitutes an “inquiry” in the way it is structured, the way it accepts evidence, and the mind-set of the Commission members themselves.
It was predicted then and it seems to be coming to fruition now, that what happened in Portapique was both an abhorrent event, and an aberration; a set of circumstances that is not likely to repeat itself on any regular basis, and a series of events that most police officers through the course of their careers will likely never encounter and likely never anticipate.
The circumstances were unique but the police response as it is unfolding before the Commission points to the “system” and “structure” issues which have been plaguing the RCMP for many, many years. Could it have been be done differently, surely, nothing is ever perfect. Some would and could argue that there were no apparent problems in the police response, that they did the best with “what they had”. Before one delves into the possible problems in the police response, there are some other just as pertinent observations after watching several hours of testimony.
First and foremost, there is the Commission structure itself, which in this “inquiry” is clearly more an exercise in victim identification and the proffering of support more than a need to discern facts. The very name “Mass Casualty” seems to suggest something less than the horrific killing spree it actually turned out to be. The hushed hearing room tones, the condolences, prayers, tears, group hugs, all permeate the atmosphere of the Commission and all of those that come before it. The police, as is apparently the accepted belief in these times are now being included as victims. Unable to recover from having seen, heard or participated in that night of a thousand hours. Broken and deformed by violence, bodies laying on driveways, houses and cars in flames around them providing the only light. A never ending and surreal series of scenes fitting of a Pekinpah movie. However, when everyone is a victim, where does one turn, where is there any room for self-examination?
Is this Commission trying to expose or is it trying to ameliorate the circumstances. Are we trying to learn from the incident or simply trying to provide support and counsel. And that is where this Commission begins to shred, caught between the dichotomy of grief for all versus victim rage. The Commission espouses a “trauma informed approach”, clearly currently less interested in pointing a finger than giving a hug. This may work for those observing and for those support groups that surface endlessly when tragedy strikes. The problem is that it is not what the families of those slain want.
This approach has resulted in the Commission allowing group or panel testimony, remote video testimony, and declarations of fact that have been pre-determined by Commission investigators prior to the hearings. The Commission has ruled that police officers or witnesses with “bona fide wellness concerns” need to be accommodated –and should therefore not have to withstand the usual rigors of cross-examination by the lawyers of the victim families.
As a result, the families of the victims have now decided to boycott the hearings. From any viewpoint this could not be considered a good look or outcome for the Commission.
It has been announced that the Commission has decided that the evidence of Andy OBrien and Brian Rehill will be pre-recorded over Zoom; and only Commission counsel will be able to ask them questions. There is no reason given, as this of course is private medical or psychological information. S/Sgt Brian Rehill was the Risk Manager working in the Operations Centre when this file was generated. Sgt Andrew O’Brian was the Operations NCO for Bible Hill Detachment, the detachment which encompasses Portapique. Both these persons clearly played key roles and should under normal inquiry or civil circumstances be cross-examined. That said both could very well be suffering from psychological trauma. And therein lies the investigative dilemma.
S/Sgt Bruce Briers did testify and was the officer who took over from Rehill in the Operations Center at 0700 am the following morning. Briers testimony was concise, compelling, rational, and at times emotional. His early service was spent in Labrador and Newfoundland, once a polygraph operator and at the time of the Portapique incident had spent four years in the Risk Managers role. His responses to questions were professional and honest. Briers, became emotional when talk became what could have been done to prevent the whole disastrous set of circumstances– when he reflected back on what the community could have done prior to the incident.
In the hours of testimony that has been watched to date, suffice to say that all the officers testifying came across well and well-intentioned. They were honest in saying that night they were doing the best they could with “given what they had”. There was exasperation and futility expressed in some of their answers, and sometimes outright anger, that the system and the structure of the RCMP in their operations is flawed and that night mass confusion and exasperation had resulted in a delayed and confused response.
Again, not the fault of the officers involved, as Briers testified, they were being fed a fire hose of information that was being funnelled through a garden hose. The picture as told by Briers, by Cpl Mills the ERT commander, by Jeff West and Kevin Surette the Critical Incident Commanders, and by others was one where there was problems trying to establish a clear line of command, no unified reporting structure, and insufficient resources –all of which worked to the advantage of a mad man, a denturist, who in high school wanted to be a cop (according to a source), but now just wanted to kill.
These types of problems and issues of disconnect have all been heard before, through other inquiries, other Coroner’s inquests, and assorted criminal trials in one form or another over several years. All of course with the benefit of honed 20/20 hindsight. Too many in “command” working from an assortment of unconnected software programs that when the crisis hit and stopped being a “table top” exercise it distilled down to paper charts and felt markers and a flukey run-in with the killer at a gas station.
For years the RCMP has covered under-funding, inexperience, and under-resourcing with a series of one-off solutions. They add layers and layers of supervision as a form of compensation for inexperience and sporadic training. If the experience or skill set is not there, give a course or a webinar to cover it off. Centralize, de-centralize and the integration of resources have all been initially prompted by a need to cover off a fundamental shortfall, whether it be in resourcing or experience.
Software and technology as part of the communication and reporting systems has proven no different. The inability to orchestrate uniformity has led to multiple systems; CAD, PROS, CIIDS, MWS, and Pictometry. Municipal forces don’t necessarily share with the Federal force, and some RCMP Provinces are different from other RCMP Provinces. As an example, Halifax city police use Versadex instead of PROS or PRIME to report. Therefore for Portapique, the RCMP had no direct access to the Halifax file information. Layers of software programs, multiple data bases, multiple avenues to access, none of them synthesized into one coherent product.
Then add a radio communication system that is not capable of being 100% effective, dead spots, no cellular coverage. The original attending members excited, shouting without pre-announcing themselves, protocols always forgotten in the mad need to be heard.
Jeff West and Kevin Surette were the “Critical Incident Commanders” assigned to the file. A “scribe” for the Commander was assigned as protocol dictated. They were both from out of the area, in fact Surette was a 2 or 3 hour drive from Portapique. Suffice to say they had no personal or direct knowledge of the geographic area of Portapique.
The Critical Incident Commanders have their own command triangle and falling under them is the ERT team, and the Crisis Negotiation Team. After ERT comes the uniform officers, the General Investigation Section and the Major Crime Units. It was at 10:42 pm that S/Sgt Halliday the Acting Operations Officer calls for ERT and the Critical Incident Team. As the calls went out, others now got involved on the periphery, and included, the District Commander, the District Policing Officer, and the District Advisory NCO (the “Danco”) S/Sgt Addie MacCallum. A call to Air Services in Moncton tells them that the helicopter is “unavailable”. Of course.
For a number of years now, all of policing management has fallen in love with the term and idea of a “Command Centre”. The bigger the event the more Command Centers. (As an example, during the Olympics there were no less than three Command Centers)
Often they are large trucks, RV’s and the like, all suitably emblazoned with the logos and community minded sponsors. Or they pick a community hall, a firehall to accommodate the sure to be descending legion of experts and expertise. In this case they chose the Great Village Firehall (they had initially picked the Bass River Firehall but then realized it was in the “hot zone” and had to change locations).
The Critical Incident team arrives at the Firehall at 0100 hrs, more than two hours after the initial call. They initiate their “critical incident package”. In the beginning they are working off portable radios, awaiting a base station to arrive, and in fact often have to stand beside a window so that they have radio coverage. Their planning and tracking tool consists of a series of white boards and felt markers or as Commission counsel likes to refer to as “The Boards”. They have no laptop with them.
The ERT team first goes to the Command Post. The Critical Incident commanders worry about needing to make a firm radio announcement that they are now “in command”. There seems to be much confusion on the air waves at this point, one frustrated officer pointedly asks “who is in command here?”.
The Critical Incident Command strategy comes from their training in “SMEAC”. Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Command. This is police operational manual and acronym strategy at its finest, and this stuff makes most operational police officers ears hurt and eyes water. It makes sense in a classroom and rarely translates to efficiency.
Of course, none of this is the fault of the officers involved, West and Surette were doing what they were taught, it is what they are told is the latest thinking in a time of crisis, it is part and parcel of the “National Course Standards” after all.
It is clear that the whole mobile command centre structure needs to be re-thought. Is it time for a fully suited-up command centre that is available on a permanent basis, one equipped with all the technology and a set of unified technology programs?
Secondly, one needs to get rid of all of the supervisors. The operational triangle, with uniform at the base is now upside down. It is top heavy, bureaucratic, inflated, all at the expense of the base which is the front line. The uniforms, the actual first responders need to be made into the priority, the heavy end of the hammer, where the most experienced and skilled are promoted, reside and prosper. The supervisors or those that need to be in control in these type of situations needs to be pushed down to the lowest level, no different than the theory of quick response developed under Columbine.
Gabriel Wortman came to an end, because he ran out of gas in the stolen vehicle he was driving; and because of some keen observations and commendable actions of a dog man and an ERT member, Ben MacLeod and Craig Hubley who were travelling together, and had also stopped for gas. Hours and hours of terror came to an end about twenty seconds later.
Wortman was not stopped by the structure or the organization that had been put in place to apprehend him. He was stopped by luck and coincidence. Cpl Mills of the ERT team in testimony called it a “broken organization”. He was referring to the treatment of his team members after the incident, but he just as easily could have been referring to resourcing, communication systems or the organizational structure impediments.
Once again, look to the top if one wants to assign blame, not to the men and women working the shifts.