At this moment, the internet, with its various corners dedicated to poring over the details of the Nova Scotia mass shooting, seems divided in three:
The crowd who thinks the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did the best it could, the group who thinks the Mounties screwed up and those who fall somewhere in between and are waiting for more information before they hop off the fence.
The truth is a little more complicated than picking a side, says Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. Still, she understands how enticing some might find the idea that police could do their jobs in such a way that they stop atrocities before they happen.
Remember Minority Report? Featuring Tom Cruise, pre-Oprah’s couch jump?
He starred as a futuristic cop who works in a “pre-crime” division, meaning his team used psychics to arrest people for crimes before they committed them.
It’s a movie, though, so of course, the psychics predict Cruise’s character will commit a murder, prompting him to go on the lam and start interrogating the system he was pretty happy to go along with. It’s a tantalizing system, Quaid says, until you realize the twist: it isn’t foolproof. (You’re safe now from spoilers).
“The point is that the idea you can reduce these events to zero is, I think, completely unrealistic,” she says. “However much we might wish it, the cost of even attempting to get there is such a price in civil liberties.”
If there is one point the lawyers and criminologists interviewed for this piece agree on, it’s that you cannot 100 per cent eliminate mass crimes. The asterisk is that as horrifying and devastating as mass murder is, it’s not all that common in Canada. Violent crime is trending down, with the notable exception of sexual assault.
Experts say our best bet for minimizing what attacks do happen is to address the social issues underpinning them — an idea in keeping with the push to defund police.
The defund campaign is growing louder across the continent in response to the killings of Black Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman in Toronto who fell from her balcony while she was alone in her home with police. The Ontario police watchdog is now investigating.
In Canada, when there is a mass shooting, what follows is almost predictable. There’s a rush for answers, and in that rush, our collective response tends to be driven by “anxiety, shock, grief and anger rather than empirical evidence,” says criminologist Jihyun Kwon, meaning “you tend to see oversimplification and politicization of causes, motives and solutions.”
In early May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on owning assault-style firearms. In early June, the Mounties revealed the assault-style weapons used in the attack were actually acquired illegally — so how much would a ban have actually prevented the gunman from stocking up?
“The prohibition of assault weapons is one piece in the larger puzzle of ending gun violence,” said Mary-Liz Power, press secretary for Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, in an emailed statement.
“We’ve been clear that we will take additional measures to cut off the three major ways crime guns are sourced — they are smuggled, diverted or stolen.”
In her statement, Power said the government will introduce new offences and penalties for those who participate in such crimes “at the earliest opportunity,” in addition to “new tools for our law enforcement authorities to better stop the flow of these weapons before they’re used in crime.”
Still, preventing atrocities is not a job for the police on their own, says Kwon, a doctoral criminology candidate at the University of Toronto who specializes in police oversight and accountability. Nor, she says, is it all about the weapons they’re equipped with.
It’s terrifying to imagine a well-armed gunman at large in rural Canada, wearing an authentic Mountie uniform and driving a replica RCMP vehicle that police would later admit allowed him to stay “steps ahead” of them.
But that doesn’t happen every day, Quaid says, and if police were always expecting that level of violence, you’d more than likely see more use of force more regularly.
“If you’re trained to respond like every person is dangerous and out to get you, the police reaction is going to be pretty harsh.”
Quaid thinks of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old immigrant from Syria who died on July 27, 2013 after being shot by Toronto police Const. James Forcillo. Forcillo fired two volleys of shots at Yatim, who was standing and holding a knife on an empty streetcar.
Forcillo was acquitted of second-degree murder but convicted of attempted murder because the second round of bullets he fired were shot after Yatim was already dying on the ground.
“It’s more important for the police to focus on how they are operating on a daily basis,” says Kwon. “It’s their overall approach that needs to be changed.”
On June 4, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell told reporters: “We may never uncover all of the details or fully understand why the gunman did what he did.” But Campbell was committed to “providing answers.”
At that update, Campbell spoke about the preliminary findings of a psychological autopsy of the gunman. The report used the term “injustice collector” to convey a man who it said likely felt slighted or cheated in his life and held onto those feelings — real or perceived — and who also held onto disputes and conflicts, “turning them inward until they boiled over in rage.”
None of that is a quick fix, nor is it something police can easily screen for. The desire to carefully plan such a crime is the result of “deep underlying motivations,” says Colleen Bell, an assistant professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s political department.
“These relate often to broader structural issues,” she says, “whether it’s the belief that the world is inherently unfair to a group of people or whether it’s the incel movement: these white men who believe that they have a right to have sex with women.”
We only know a few warning signs for mass murder — early childhood trauma, exposure to violence, a history of committing domestic violence, a crisis point, making their plans known to some people in advance — and even then, says Kwon, “no two mass shootings have been identical; there is no single definite predictor of such crime.”
Not every person who is abused as a kid or who perpetrates domestic abuse will go on to commit a mass murder, she says, “so the challenge for the criminal justice system and for the police is to know when exactly to intervene.”
If police do intervene, there’s the question of when. Here, Kwon can’t help but think about the evidence showing police are often quicker to intervene when an alleged suspect is Black or Indigenous or poor or all three — and with more force.
“What would have happened if the (Nova Scotia gunman) was a different person?”
Police, by nature of their job, will always be late to tackling mass killings, says Doug King, a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Police are pretty much in a position of having to respond after the fact,” he says. “That’s simply because individuals live private lives, and you and I and the police have limited capacity — and rightly so — for digging into everyone’s lives to find out what’s going to happen.”
Remember Minority Report?
If you really want to intervene earlier and try to minimize the violence, King says, you need to connect with the community and make sure neighbours know what warning signs to be aware of and who to tell.
Criminal justice isn’t a straight line, says Quaid.
“You can’t say: in every case where you observe X, you’re going to have Y outcome.”
Instead, she says, what you have is another piece of a puzzle: childhood abuse, prior reports of domestic violence, reports of conflict, problematic behaviour and a stash of weapons.
As the investigation progresses and calls for a public inquiry in Nova Scotia’s mass shooting continue to sound, Canadians are likely to find out certain efforts to intervene earlier were possible before the situation went “horribly, horribly wrong,” says King.
But, he suspects, “what could have been done likely wouldn’t be a law enforcement issue. It will likely be related to mental health issues, related to community, to neighbours being aware of things that were happening but not raising it with law enforcement.”
Bell doesn’t disagree with that. But, she says, acknowledging that preventing crime requires more than just cops doesn’t mean letting the Mounties off the hook.
After all, she notes, the RCMP has a well-documented history of “secrecy and lack of public oversight,” which she expects has a role to play in what happens when the force screws up.
And on the night of the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history — a 13-hour rampage that left 22 people dead — the Mounties opted to alert the public via Twitter rather than the new provincial alert system.
Chief Supt. Chris Leather told reporters in early June that the relative newness of the provincial Alert Ready System was a big factor in not using it then but — a few days and many headlines wondering why no alert later — using it to warn about shots fired that turned out to not, in fact, be shots fired.
It’s pretty clear “there were some communication breakdown issues,” says Bell.
Police were called shortly after 10 p.m. on April 18; the Mounties sent their first tweet after 11:30 p.m. — advising they were responding to a firearms complaint in Portapique. Then, the force was silent until 8:02 a.m. on April 19, when police tweeted there was an active shooter. Periodic updates followed until the gunman was shot dead by police at 11:26 a.m.
The Mounties should have used the Alert Ready System, Bell says. They didn’t.
And while “some practical things… might come out of an investigation into how the RCMP handled it, the deeper question of why this guy felt it was a good idea to do what he did is something that is obviously beyond the police.”