An internal review completed by the RCMP claims the number of police officers working in the community where the Nova Scotia shooting spree began was at least six short of what’s needed to meet minimum policing standards in the year leading up to the killings.
According to the review, which was released as part of a report prepared for the public inquiry looking into the shootings, having fewer officers than needed can affect other officers’ ability to conduct “proactive” policing and their ability to respond to incidents.
“Research completed by the RCMP … has indicated that low proactive availability of first responders can have a negative impact on response to call (sic), visibility, officer safety and officer wellbeing,” the September 2020 review said.
“Based on the analysis in this review, it is recommended that the Colchester District RCMP establishment be increased by six full-time equivalent positions to address inadequate proactive availability.”
Proactive policing refers to the amount of time officers have during their shifts when they’re not responding to or following up on active incidents.
According to the RCMP review, officers should be available 35 per cent of the time for proactive policing duties, which include community policing and other crime-reduction efforts.
But in Colchester County, which is where more than half of the 22 victims of the shooting spree were killed, this minimum standard was met in just 13 of 52 weeks the year before the shooting spree, according to the RCMP review.
“The low amount of proactive time meant first responders were very busy responding to occurrences,” the review said, speaking generally about police working conditions in Colchester District.
On the weekend of April 18 and 19, 2020, Gabriel Wortman shot and killed 13 people in Portapique, a seaside community located near the centre of Colchester County, before moving on to kill nine more people the following day.
While the RCMP review doesn’t mention the shooting spree, it was completed five months after the killings took place. The review says the RCMP conducted its analysis – using data from 2019 – in response to concerns raised by the municipality about inadequate policing levels. These concerns predate the April 2020 killing spree.
The review’s findings are significant because the RCMP’s capability to respond to the shooting spree has been the subject of criticism and speculation since the weekend the killings happened.
These concerns include questions about how long it took RCMP officers to respond to the scene in Portapique, plus concerns about potential “red flags” the RCMP might have missed about the gunman in the months and years leading up to the shootings.
The review does show that, in general, officers were available to respond to top priority calls when needed – officers were available for immediate response in 96 per cent of top priority calls in 2019 – but it also suggests heavy workloads limited officers’ ability to prioritize things that might prevent crimes before they occur.
“What little proactive time that was available was used to follow up on previous occurrences and complete activities related to provincial policing priority initiatives,” the review said.
RCMP ‘never’ asked for more
Concerns about RCMP staffing shortages in rural Canada have been around for years.
Town councils and police advisory have also questioned whether the RCMP is the right force to police their communities.
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Wade Parker, a longtime municipal councillor in Colchester and a member of the county’s police advisory board, said his community has had concerns about RCMP staffing levels for at least six years.
He said his main issue isn’t with the total number of officers on payroll, it’s with how the officers who are employed by the RCMP allocate their time.
Parker said he and other councillors have long believed absences due to leave and transfers to other areas of the country where the RCMP operates have left the community struggling to maintain a level of policing that’s expected.
He also said that if the RCMP had come to the local council or the police advisory board and asked for more resources they would likely have got them.
“Council has always been very open to if the RCMP ever needed anything or wanted anything, we were there,” Parker said. “Never once did they ever come to us telling us that they needed more people to be able to police the area.”
The RCMP review shows that about a quarter of the time each officer in Colchester was supposed to work in 2019 based on a 40-hour workweek wasn’t due to reasons such as sick leave, parental leave, vacation, training and long-term disability.
“Never once did we ever say that we felt we were understaffed,” Parker said. “We felt we were understaffed because they didn’t have all the boots on the ground.”
Global News asked the RCMP about Parker’s claim that Colchester County was never informed about staff shortages prior to the review’s findings being shared with the local council.
Global News also asked the RCMP whether the staffing shortages that existed in 2019 existed in April 2020 at the time of the shooting spree and whether chronic staffing shortages hindered the force’s ability to investigate the gunman prior to the killings.
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Marshall said it would be inappropriate to comment on any specific documents that are part of the public inquiry process.
Marshall did, however, say that the review of policing services in Colchester County was prompted by concerns raised by local councillors about police visibility and engagement in the community and that the review didn’t relate to issues with enforcement activities or the quality of investigations.
“Based on the analysis of the review, which was completed by the RCMP, it was recommended that the Colchester County District RCMP establishment be increased by six full-time equivalent positions to address proactive policing concerns raised by the municipality,” Marshall said. “This recommendation was put forward for consideration of council as there is a cost associated to this recommendation.”
‘Not surprised’ about shortages
Christian Leuprecht, a policing expert and professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College in Kingston, said he’s not surprised that Colchester RCMP were short-staffed in the year leading up to the shootings.
Leuprecht said this has long been his suspicion and he believes it is likely one of the challenges the RCMP faced when responding to the shootings in Portapique, which began at approximately 10 p.m. on a Saturday.
“This is a standard problem throughout rural detachments for the RCMP,” he said. “Especially for places like Nova Scotia, which simply is not at the top of the priority list.”
Leuprecht said one of the biggest problems with this kind of chronic understaffing is that in times of crisis, such as an active shooter situation, police in rural communities lack the “surge capacity” that’s needed to respond appropriately.
In a community like Colchester, this might mean having very few officers on staff and available to respond to urgent calls who live within reasonable distances from the incident. Officers who do respond, and are likely called from farther away, may also be unfamiliar with the area they’re sent to police.
“It’s not just that they’re not there that evening, they’re also not there for you to call on, as sort of the people who are the closest, who can come to your assistance,” he said.
Leuprecht said another problem with chronic police shortages is that officers are often so busy responding to ordinary calls that they have very few opportunities to learn or gain on-the-job experience about how to handle complex criminal investigations.
“It’s not just a challenge of time,” he said.
Leuprecht is hopeful that the public inquiry into the killings, which began public hearings on Feb. 22, will provide answers to questions about whether RCMP staffing levels were adequate at the time of the killing spree and whether having more officers on hand might have changed anything.
He said he also hopes provincial politicians look closely at the RCMP’s review and ask themselves whether basic levels of policing are being met and whether someone else might be better suited to provide these services.
“There’s more at play here than simply the RCMP’s ability to respond to a critical incident,” he said.