Senior Mountie describes 'beast' of organization that oversaw mass shooting response

·5 min read

HALIFAX — A senior Nova Scotia Mountie involved in the response to the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history told an inquiry Tuesday that confusion was inevitable as the police force rapidly built a "beast" of an organization to stop an active shooter.

The commission of inquiry is investigating how a man disguised as a Mountie and driving a replica RCMP cruiser managed to kill 22 people on April 18-19, 2020, before he was shot dead at a gas station by police 13 hours after his rampage began.

Sgt. Andy O'Brien, who is now retired, confirmed Tuesday he was off duty and had consumed four to five drinks of rum over a four-hour period when he learned from an officer that a suspect was shooting people and setting fire to homes in rural Portapique, N.S., about 130 kilometres north of Halifax.

"Any time that you've been drinking, to go to work would call into question the integrity of any decision-making," said O'Brien, the RCMP's operations non-commissioned officer for Colchester district.

"I was not intoxicated, but that's not the point. There's always going to be a perception if people are aware you have been drinking ... that you're compromised."

Still, O'Brien asked his wife to drive him to the RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., where he retrieved his portable radio and returned home to provide advice to responding officers.

The inquiry has heard there was confusion over who was in charge that night. One of three commissioners leading the inquiry — former Fredericton Police chief Leanne Fitch — has described a "considerable breakdown in communication."

On Tuesday, O'Brien told the inquiry the RCMP's way of handling high-risk, complex incidents was akin to building a large business in a matter or minutes or hours.

"There's always going to be growing pains in any structure, especially one you create on site in a ridiculously short time frame, with a completely new or unknown business goal," he said. "There are going to be crossed wires. There's going to be duplication of effort. There are going to be things that are missed."

O'Brien said this process, though flawed, is remarkable for its flexibility.

"We have a long history of figuring things out on the fly," he said. "We're all very familiar with the concept of, 'That may not fall exactly within my job description, but if it needs to get done, it gets done.'"

Anna Mancini, a lawyer for the commission, drew O'Brien's attention to his response when an officer in Portapique asked via two-way radio if a second team of Mounties could join three colleagues who had already entered the darkened enclave to stop the active shooter at around 10:25 p.m.

When the request came in, O'Brien said he waited for "what seemed like a lifetime" before deciding to instruct the officer to stand down because a second team working in the dark could lead to a dangerous crossfire.

"This was a case of me knowing the answer and not hearing anyone respond," he said. "Obviously, none of the (other senior officers) heard the transmission ... or was in a position to (respond)."

In earlier testimony, the district commander for the area, Staff Sgt. Allan Carroll, said he was surprised to hear O'Brien's voice over the radio because he though his colleague was at home. Carroll also said O'Brien may have breached RCMP protocol by overstepping his authority.

"He should have run it up the chain, run it up to the other people," Carroll testified last week.

Earlier this year, a federal labour investigator concluded the RCMP operation lacked clear leadership and created "an environment of confusion" for front-line officers.

Regardless of the protocol, O'Brien remained involved in the decision-making until 3 a.m. the next morning. He was later assigned to manage the crime scenes in Portapique, where 13 people had been killed during a 40-minute span before the killer escaped by driving down a little-used path.

O'Brien described providing advice to officers as they searched for the killer in Portapique on the first night, including pointers on the RCMP's policy for dealing with high-risk incidents.

"I have a very strong sense of responsibility for the members," he said, pausing to maintain his composure. "I lost a member in 2017 who worked for me. My nightmare that night was that I was going to lose another member."

O'Brien was the third senior Mountie to be granted special accommodations by the commission. Last week, the commission decided O'Brien and Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill would be exempt from having to face cross-examination from lawyers who represent relatives of the victims.

That decision, which was based on unspecified health concerns, prompted protest marches outside the hearing room. As well, most of the victims' families told their lawyers to boycott the proceedings last week and this week, prompting speculation about dwindling public trust in the commission.

The testimony of O'Brien and Rehill was recorded in a largely empty hotel conference room. The contents were not released to the public until their testimony was completed.

Rehill told the inquiry Monday there was so much information to process on the first night that it felt like being hit by a tsunami. He admitted that his plans to block the killer's escape from Portapique were thrown off by a subordinate's "misunderstanding" and a crush of competing duties.

"I have to own that," he said. Rehill said he still suffers from nightmares, poor sleep and constant reminders of what happened two years ago.

Last week, Carroll testified via a Zoom call, but he did face cross-examination from participating lawyers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2022.

— With files from Michael Tutton.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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