An hour and a half after receiving a 911 call reporting that a man was shot, and 45 minutes after initiating a full-scale critical incident response, Nova Scotia RCMP sent out a tweet informing the public that they were “responding to a firearms complaint” in the rural community of Portapique.
The tweet — sent at 11:32 p.m. on April 18, 2020 — made no mention of the fact that RCMP officers on the scene had discovered the bodies of two shooting victims roughly 30 minutes earlier, nor did it mention that several buildings in the area were on fire or that anyone was shot.
The tweet also failed to mention that the RCMP had authorized its highest-level response to the emerging crisis, and members of its emergency response team (ERT) were ordered to descend upon the area.
“At 10:46 p.m. on April 18, 2020, I was contacted by the on-call critical incident commander who provided me with some details pertaining to the incident in Portapique,” RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell wrote in an affidavit.
“I approved the full Critical Incident Program to respond in Portapique. The ERT team was directed to travel directly to Portapique from its base at RCMP HQ in Halifax.”
The new details are contained in an affidavit submitted by the RCMP to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court as part of the force’s defence in a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by victims’ families.
The affidavit shows it took police roughly three hours from the time the first 911 call was received to set up roadblocks around Portapique, and that the force’s critical incident commander wasn’t in “overall command” of the operation until 1:24 a.m. on April 19.
“Rural Canada is a challenging place to police in terms of resources, and especially in terms of being able to surge those resources at critical times,” said Christian Leuprecht, a public safety and policing expert at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
Leuprecht said that while the RCMP might have benefited from setting up roadblocks earlier, he isn’t surprised by the timing of the response and how long things took given how few resources are available in the region.
He also said the RCMP’s response would have been made more difficult by the fact the shooting occurred on a weekend and that municipal police departments weren’t called in to assist.
“The RCMP was on its own,” Leuprecht said.
The ‘best and clearest’ information
The RCMP has faced intense criticism for its decision to use Twitter rather than the province’s emergency alert system to notify the public about the killing spree. Victims’ family members have alleged that lives might have been saved if police had used the emergency alert system.
The joint federal and provincial public inquiry into the shooting spree will consider the RCMP’s communication with the public as part of its review.
RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather has also previously defended the force’s decision to use Twitter, saying it’s a “superior” way to communicate with the public during a crisis.
Leather said the public was given the “best and clearest information that could be provided” throughout the shooting spree. He said police had a “distinct lack of information” about the gunman early in their investigation.
“Very satisfied with the messaging,” Leather said during an April 28, 2020, press conference.
Campbell’s affidavit said the RCMP used Twitter because of lessons learned during the 2014 shooting spree in Moncton, N.B., that left three Mounties dead. He said the RCMP determined that Twitter is an effective method of communication because members of the public and the media follow police on the social media platform.
Campbell’s affidavit also said the RCMP was in the process of drafting an emergency alert on the morning of April 19 when gunman Gabriel Wortman was shot and killed by police at a gas station in Enfield.
Campbell added that, to his knowledge, no police service in Canada had ever used the emergency alert system to warn the public of an active shooter situation prior to the Nova Scotia killing spree.
Sounds of gunshots
Campbell’s affidavit also says police officers on scene in Portapique said they heard gunshots in the area as late as 2:50 a.m. on April 19.
This seems to contradict earlier statements made by police, which state the gunman left the scene in Portapique at roughly 10:45 p.m. on April 18.
During a press conference held shortly after the shooting, Campbell said witnesses in Portapique reported hearing gunshots late in the evening. At the time, he said these sounds may have been caused by ammunition exploding in the fires set by the gunman.
The RCMP has also told Global News that none of its officers fired their weapons on scene in Portapique during their search for the gunman.
But Campbell’s affidavit doesn’t mention ammunition stored in any of the buildings Wortman lit on fire, nor does it provide other possible explanations for the source of the sound of gunshots.
Global News asked the RCMP to clarify the information contained in Campbell’s affidavit about the sound of gunfire in Portapique. The force did not respond to these questions.
Request for helicopter denied
Campbell’s affidavit describes efforts made by the RCMP to obtain air support to help with the search for the gunman.
As Global News first reported, the RCMP’s only helicopter stationed in Atlantic Canada was out for “routine maintenance” the weekend the shooting spree occurred.
According to the affidavit, officers who responded to the scene in Portapique asked to use the helicopter at 11:10 p.m. on April 18. The request specified the need for infrared technology to help search the densely forested areas that surround Portapique.
But a response from the RCMP’s Air Services Branch, received at 11:16 p.m, said the helicopter was “grounded for maintenance” and therefore unavailable to assist with the search.
It wasn’t until 6 a.m. the following morning — more than eight hours after the first 911 calls were received — that the RCMP had any kind of air support. This was a drone operated by officers at the scene.
Global News has previously reported that the RCMP didn’t ask the Canadian Armed Forces for air support to assist with the manhunt. This was according to a response to questions sent by Global News to the Department of National Defence (DND).
Campbell’s affidavit suggests the RCMP did request air support from the military.
“Additional inquiries to secure air support were made with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre – Canadian Forces and Canadian Coast Guard,” the affidavit said.
Global News asked DND to clarify whether the RCMP requested air support to assist with the manhunt.
In a written statement, the department said it can’t comment because of the proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP and the government.
But a source familiar with communication between the RCMP and DND on the weekend of the shooting spree told Global News that RCMP didn’t make an official request for air support to help with the manhunt.
Instead, the RCMP contacted the military to inquire about its “capabilities” to mount a search operation, the source said. These inquiries didn’t include any formal submissions or requests for air resources to assist with the search.
Victims’ family members allege in their proposed class-action lawsuit that the RCMP failed to deploy a helicopter capable of launching nighttime search missions in a timely or effective manner.
Campbell’s affidavit notes that RCMP officers used infrared technology to perform a ground search in Portapique looking for the gunman. It also says the force requested air support from Nova Scotia’s Department Lands and Forestry.
A Lands and Forestry helicopter was used by police on April 19 to assist with the search for the gunman.