HALIFAX — Public trust in law enforcement agencies is undermined every time someone is caught impersonating a police officer, the inquiry investigating the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia was told Wednesday.
The inquiry has heard the gunman was disguised as a Mountie and driving a car that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser when he started killing people in rural Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020. In all, he fatally shot 22 people before he was killed by two RCMP officers the next day.
A five-member panel, which included former police officers and academics, was asked Wednesday what could be done to regain public trust when such a tragedy happens.
One former police officer said the public should start asking questions whenever approached by someone who claims to be an officer.
"We are lucky as a society that we basically trust our police," said Julia Cecchetto, the former chief of the Kentville Municipal Police Service and former chairwoman of the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association. "But I think the public needs to start questioning, challenging .... It's OK to confront. Any police officer is going to understand that."
Ian Loader, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford in England, said trust in the police remains high, but he said that has little to do with how police actually behave.
"One of the big, unexplained questions in police sociology, given all the scandals and misconduct ... that we've witnessed in the last three decades, is why public support for the police remains so high," Loader said.
A large portion of the population automatically assumes the police are always a force for good, he said.
"If they contemplate what it would feel like to live in a society where they can't trust the police, they find that too troubling and they suppress that thought," Loader said. As a result, the idea that people should routinely question and challenge police is probably asking too much, he said.
"I'm not sure that's where we want to end up," Loader said. "But there may be a lot to be said for inculcating a much more nuanced and skeptical view of policing as an institution .... An uncritical identification with the police in a democracy is a dangerous sentiment."
Meaghan Daniel, a Montreal lawyer and academic who focuses on social justice and state violence, said it's important to recognize there's another segment of the population that has good reason for not trusting the police.
For marginalized Canadians, the RCMP and police in general are not to be trusted, she said. Among Indigenous people, Daniel said, the Mounties are associated with genocide and other atrocities.
One of the roles of the RCMP was asserting sovereignty over Indigenous people and their lands, and to act as truant officers for children fleeing residential schools, she added.
"For Indigenous people in Canada, RCMP and other police are not symbols of comfort, as they might be for white, upper-middle-class families," Daniel said.
"For Indigenous people, it's a symbol of ... over-incarceration or a foreign and imposed justice system .... I don't want to sound like I'm overstating, but I feel like these symbols are in fact terrorizing to some, as much as they are celebrated by others."
The inquiry entered a new phase of its mandate on Wednesday by shifting its focus to learning the how and the why of what happened two years ago, though its initial fact-finding effort is ongoing.
The federal-provincial commission, which started hearings in February, is expected to submit an interim report to the two levels of government by this Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press