There was a murderous gunman on the loose in a wooded area of rural Nova Scotia.
He’d already killed 13 people and set several homes ablaze by the time police emergency response units arrived on the scene.
But hours after the first 911 calls came in on the evening of April 18, Nova Scotia RCMP still hadn’t deployed a helicopter in the skies above Portapique to search for the killer. This has prompted policing experts and victims’ family members to criticize the force’s response to the shootings.
The RCMP, meanwhile, says its only Atlantic-based helicopter, stationed in Moncton, N.B., was undergoing routine maintenance at the time of the shootings and was unavailable to police.
Global News has also learned the RCMP did not request air support from the military to assist with the manhunt, even though nearby Air Force bases have helicopters capable of nighttime search and rescue missions.
The RCMP previously said it made a “request” for air support as part of its critical incident response to the shootings.
“Perimeters were established, specialized units responded, which included police dog services, emergency response team members, and request for air support helicopter (sic),” said RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell during an April 24 press conference.
But, at that time of these remarks, Campbell didn’t comment on the status of the police force’s only helicopter stationed in the region.
And while police did eventually get a helicopter from Nova Scotia’s Department of Lands and Forestry to assist with the search, the RCMP hasn’t said when this helicopter was deployed and what capabilities it had. They’ve also declined to say what, if any, agencies other than Lands and Forestry they asked for help.
“RCMP Air Service assets undergo routine maintenance as per Transport Canada regulations and standards, which was ongoing at the time of the incident,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said in a written statement.
“In the event that a need arises, local RCMP can seek support from other divisions/provinces or other agencies to assist, based on the specific needs of the situation at hand.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has said the province received a request for air support sometime in the morning of April 19, at least two hours after police first responded to the shootings.
“We were notified that there were structure fires in Portapique around midnight, a little after,” McNeil said during a press conference on April 21. “We were told potentially this could spread into a forest fire.
“We were then asked for some, later in the morning, air support.”
A proposed class-action lawsuit filed by victims’ family members against the RCMP and the province claims the RCMP “failed to use all resources available to it” to track, locate and stop the gunman. This includes allegations it failed to use a helicopter “capable of conducting both nighttime and daytime searches.”
Global News asked the RCMP and the province detailed questions about what time the Lands and Forestry helicopter was deployed and what capabilities it had. Neither police nor the government answered these questions.
A spokesperson for the RCMP said questions about the helicopter should be directed toward Lands and Forestry. A spokesperson for Lands and Forestry said questions about the investigation into the shootings should be directed toward the RCMP.
Lack of air support concerning
Christian Leuprecht, a policing expert at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., says Canadians should be concerned that the RCMP didn’t quickly deploy a helicopter to assist in the search for the Nova Scotia gunman.
Leuprecht says active shooter situations are a “tier one” priority for civilian police forces, including the RCMP, meaning they should be able to respond expeditiously to the threat.
“It’s the single, top call that a police force can receive: we have an active shooter,” he said.
Leuprecht doesn’t think it’s necessary for the RCMP to have more helicopters stationed in Atlantic Canada — from a cost perspective he says this is likely unrealistic — but there should be a clear plan in place to make sure equipment owned by other government agencies, such as the military, is available to civilian police forces in case of an emergency, he said.
Leuprecht also says it’s the responsibility of the police to request this type of assistance because the military doesn’t have a mandate to provide civilian law enforcement services within Canada.
And while it’s unclear how military air support might have affected the manhunt, Leuprecht says police have learned from previous shooting sprees that an “all hands on deck” approach is needed to contain an active shooter and to prevent more violence.
“The fact that the system didn’t respond or wasn’t able to respond with all hands on deck … is a failure of providing the level of service that Canadians, regardless of where they live in the country, are entitled to in terms of public safety and security,” he said.
Air support ‘key’ to reducing risk in past shootings
In June 2014, 24-year-old Justin Bourque went on a shooting rampage in Moncton, killing three RCMP officers and seriously injuring two others. Bourque led police on a 29-hour manhunt before he was finally captured.
An independent report into the shootings found that air support, including a helicopter, was a key feature of the RCMP’s search for the gunman and its ability to keep other officers safe during the manhunt.
“The risk members were exposed to in locating and apprehending Bourque was greatly reduced because of aerial surveillance,” the report said.
“Given the large area to be searched, and the extreme risk that such a search operation would have involved were it conducted by personnel on the ground, specially-equipped aircraft were the most effective means of accomplishing the task.”
The report also said the RCMP should consider asking for help from the military when needed. This includes the use of aircraft.
“Provisions exist for the RCMP to request the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces in operations where specialized or unique capabilities are required,” the report said.
Global News asked the Department of National Defence if the RCMP requested air support or any other support to assist with the manhunt for the Nova Scotia gunman.
In a written statement, the department said no request for air support was ever made.
“No. The Canadian Armed Forces were not asked by (Nova Scotia) or the RCMP to provide aerial support regarding the events in Portapique,” the statement said.
There are two Air Force bases located in Nova Scotia. Both are within 150 kilometres of where the shooting spree started and both have helicopters designed for search operations.
The RCMP requested, and received, support from the military, but only after the manhunt ended.
This included modular tents, lights, tables, chairs and generators sent to different parts of the province. The military also provided mental health services for RCMP officers who responded to the shootings.
A lack of resources available to Nova Scotia RCMP has also sparked recent criticisms. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair approved a request from the province’s attorney general to boost local police presence following attacks against Mi’kmaw lobster fishers and claims the RCMP didn’t do enough to stop the violence.
The RCMP Air Services branch operates a fleet of 35 aircraft, including nine helicopters. The fleet is spread out among 19 different “Air Stations” across the country and provides tactical and logistical support to police operations.
Outside of Moncton, the next closest RCMP helicopter to Portapique is stationed in Montreal, roughly 800 kilometres away, according to the RCMP.