N.S. Mountie admits 'I missed the mark' during early communications about mass killings

·5 min read
Chief Supt. Chris Leather of the Nova Scotia RCMP testifies before the public inquiry into the mass shooting across Nova Scotia of April 2020, on July 27 in Halifax. (CBC - image credit)
Chief Supt. Chris Leather of the Nova Scotia RCMP testifies before the public inquiry into the mass shooting across Nova Scotia of April 2020, on July 27 in Halifax. (CBC - image credit)

One of the most senior RCMP officers in Nova Scotia admitted he "missed the mark" during early press conferences about the mass killings in Nova Scotia.

Chief Supt. Chris Leather was testifying at the Mass Casualty Commission, the inquiry into the murders of 22 people — including a pregnant woman — on April 18-19, 2020, by a gunman driving a replica police cruiser.

The commission's counsel, Rachel Young, questioned Leather about the accuracy of some of the information he shared at press conferences and how he prepared for them.

Leather said he sometimes only had five or six minutes to review talking points and often had to rely on his memory to answer questions from reporters.

"That's what led to some of the incorrect accounting," he said. "I'll say it right now. Obviously I missed the mark on more than a couple occasions."

CBC
CBC

During the first news conference the evening of April 19, Leather said "in excess of 10 people" had been killed.

But the public inquiry has found that Leather had been given information an hour before that news conference suggesting there were at least 17 victims, and he'd known for hours that officers had discovered at least 14 bodies.

"If we think about the now infamous 'in excess of' expression that I used, it was done with my intention to not upset/offend/mislead.… I was more concerned about giving a victim total that was over what it truly was, or in excess of," he testified Wednesday. "And by going to the number that I chose, it in fact ended up having the opposite effect."

Leather testified the information he was receiving before the news conference about the number of victims kept changing.

"I had received information leading up to that particular statement that I made that was truthfully in excess of 10, perhaps closer to 15, if we're going to put a mark in the sand. But the problem was it fluctuated. Depending on who was providing me the information, it was 14, 17, back down again."

Leather said he had a "stairwell conversation" with the director of communications, Lia Scanlan, and "we agreed we just need to cut this off, put the number piece aside and go with a number."

Young asked Leather whether he intended to mislead the public or hide information during press conferences.

"Absolutely not. I intended to do the opposite," he responded.

Incident initially portrayed as 'firearms call'

Young pointed out that in the news conferences on April 19 and 22, as well as the first tweet sent out about the situation, it was described as a "firearms call."

Asked whether that mischaracterized the seriousness of the event, and whether it might confuse or mislead the public about the danger, Leather said "in hindsight, that's not the term that I would use to describe it."

A second tweet issued on April 19 described the situation as an active shooter — which Leather agreed was more accurate.

Young also asked about statements made at press conferences and in news releases that the RCMP had "secured the area," when the perpetrator was still at large. Leather said that to him, "secured" means that officers are on the ground working, and that "securing" would have been a more appropriate description.

Officer safety bulletin 'begged for followup'

During Leather's testimony, he was asked about an officer safety bulletin distributed by Truro police to policing agencies in 2011 about a tip about the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, warning he "wants to kill a cop" and that he possessed at least one gun.

The bulletin was brought to the RCMP's attention April 19, 2020, when an officer with the Amherst Police Service recognized the gunman's name and dug up the 2011 notice in his email. The commission has previously heard the document was in a folder on a shared drive.

Truro Police Service
Truro Police Service

Leather said the notice was not available to members in a searchable database, and that it wasn't even a finalized document, but rather in fragments "in this sort of jumbled, unofficial format."

The document did not reveal who gave the tip, but Leather said it was of "obvious importance" to find out who it was.

"Their information … was germane to the H-Strong investigation and God knows what else they knew and could bring to that criminal investigation," Leather said.

Young asked Leather about the fact that it appears no RCMP member interviewed Wortman in the wake of the 2011 bulletin.

"The bulletin itself, just given its contents, if you knew nothing more, begged for followup investigation, for sure," he said. "It only made sense that there would be further inquiries made."

Why municipal police weren't called in

Leather was asked why he called in resources from RCMP in New Brunswick during the mass casualty event rather than relying on municipal forces within Nova Scotia.

In her capacity as head of Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association, Julie Cecchetto, Kentville's police chief, canvassed her colleagues on April 19 about what help they may be able to offer the RCMP.

Almost all of them replied with offers of extra officers, but they were not called in by the RCMP.

WATCH | Senior Mountie apologizes to families of victims of N.S. mass shooting: 

Leather said that's because of concerns within the RCMP about interoperability, communications, training and expectations during a sustained major event.

"I think it's fraught with risk," he said. "When they come together to work in a high-risk scenario, if they're not reading from the same page, if they're not aligned in terms of their thinking, their training and how they address a situation, what an awful place to experience that breakdown."

In everyday situations, Leather said the RCMP does frequently work with municipal agencies.

He said the chiefs recently got together — prompted by the trucker protests — to resolve some of those issues. "We're getting there," he said. "It's a work in progress."

Leather told the commission he is aware of the sentiment among some municipal policing agencies that the RCMP "felt superior."

He said the changes in leadership within the Nova Scotia RCMP — including his imminent move to Ottawa — should help improve relations.

"As sad as I am for leaving, I'm happy for the person coming in behind me. They will have a clean slate and an opportunity to engage with the municipal chiefs without any of this baggage that we've all carried around for the last two years."

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