HALIFAX — Nova Scotia RCMP were initially reluctant to release a photo of the replica police cruiser being driven by a gunman who killed 22 people in April 2020 out of fear it could spark a “frantic panic.”
The details are from an interview with an RCMP operations officer who responded to the shootings on April 18 and 19, conducted by the public inquiry investigating the mass shooting.
Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday told the inquiry's investigators that during an 8 a.m. phone call with communications director Lia Scanlan on April 19, he expressed concerns about publicly releasing the photograph they had just received of the killer’s replica RCMP car.
Halliday told inquiry interviewers in November 2021 he was worried about how such a message would be worded, "in order not, you know, (to) put ourselves at … our people … in any more risk.”
According to the interview transcript, Halliday told Scanlan he wanted to avoid sending “the public into a frantic panic and overload our … OCC (Operational Communications Centre) operators." These operators based out of Truro, N.S., handled 911 calls.
He went on to say that with so many police cars on the road responding to the rampage, he imagined that “everybody who sees a police car (will start) calling 911.” He said that was top of mind when “trying to frame” how this piece of information would be communicated.
In the end, the photograph of the suspect's vehicle was not shared with the public until 10:17 a.m., about three hours after the photos were obtained by Halifax Regional Police from a relative of the killer's spouse.
Halliday told the interviewers, “we knew we had to get it out,” in reference to the picture of the killer’s RCMP car. “But you know … none of us had ever had any experience with sending a message like that out to the public,” he added.
“It was very heavy.”
Before RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson was killed by the gunman while racing to support another officer who had been shot, she asked about sharing a picture of the replica cruiser with the public.
At 8:44 a.m., Stevenson is recorded asking supervisors if they had considered distributing a media release about the killer's fully marked Ford Taurus. She was killed by the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, in a firefight at 10:49 a.m. after their vehicles collided.
Colchester County RCMP District Commander Al Carroll emailed Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, the risk manager at the Operational Communications Centre, about Stevenson's suggestion of a media release at 9:08 a.m., saying that a public statement about the police car would not happen. “Thought was given to release about vehicle, but decision made not to,” Carroll wrote.
Briers replied seven minutes later: “Very good, kind of figured they may not want to release.”
It’s unclear who Brier means by “they” in his email. In the interview with the inquiry, Halliday said he was not aware of this conversation between Carroll and Briers.
“That’s the first I’ve heard anything like that, and I’m shocked to hear that. I don’t think that that’s accurate, frankly,” Halliday said.
It’s not clear from police call records whether the Operational Communications Centre in Truro was inundated with calls following the eventual release of the photo on social media at 10:17 a.m. But inquiry documents detail two sightings of the shooter reported to police minutes after the picture of the fake police car was shared.
At approximately 10:39 a.m., a police officer hears from his wife that her friend saw what looked to be an RCMP car drive past her home, driving south on Highway 2 in Brookfield. According to the document, she later told police she thought it might be the perpetrator based on “the pictures that (she)’d seen on the internet.”
Minutes later, the constable got confirmation that no RCMP member was driving a marked car in the area.
Then, at 10:42 a.m., another woman reached the RCMP to report a marked police vehicle heading toward Stewiacke from the Brookfield intersection with the marker “B11” on it, the last part of the code the killer had used to mark his car.“She had seen the RCMP’s Facebook post about the vehicle,” reads the document.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press