Review of police services approved for county where N.S. mass shooting began

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A review of policing needs in the Nova Scotia county where the Portapique mass shooting began has been approved by the province.

Currently, RCMP are responsible for police services in most of Colchester County while the town of Truro has its own police force. There have been discussions for months between Colchester County municipal council and the provincial Department of Justice about policing. A formal request for review was sent April 16, 2020.

Two days later, a gunman drove a replica RCMP car from the community of Portapique across Nova Scotia, killing 22 people over more than 12 hours.

The review request was approved by the justice department on May 13, according to an email from spokesperson Barbara MacLean. Such reviews are "routine" for any municipality in Canada that contracts the RCMP, MacLean said.

A news release from Colchester County municipal council last April on their 2019-20 budget noted a concern that current RCMP service levels did not measure up to the $4.8 million per year they pay for those services.

Council would be requesting a review of service levels, value for payment, and "alternatives for service delivery," the release said.

Eric Woolliscroft/ CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/ CBC

While more police officers might not have made a difference in the mass shooting, the incident has led Coun. Tom Taggart to pause and reflect, he said.

"I'm not satisfied. I'm not happy that ... the residents are getting the service that they deserve, the protection they deserve," Taggart said.

Taggart said their council has voiced concerns with RCMP staffing in the area for a long time. He said not enough has been done, adding he would "absolutely" bear some of the responsibility.

"We have ... for 10 years, discussed it, debated it, kicked the can down the road. And I'm not doing that anymore," he said.

Taggart said the municipality's contract with the RCMP outlines that they pay for six officers, with a "minimum" service level of four. But, in an area that could take more than an hour to drive one end to another, Taggart said that may not be enough.

How many officers responded to shooting

The municipal council wrote to the RCMP last month to find out exactly how many officers from Colchester County responded to the shooting in Portapique.

Cpl. Jennifer Clarke, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP, confirmed in an email that police provided the exact number of members that responded from Colchester County since it was a "formal correspondence with our partners." But, Clarke said it is not usual police practice to provide numbers on how many members are working at a given time in one area. There are "obvious public and police safety concerns in revealing those details,"she said, including tipping off criminals who might use the information to their advantage.

To address this, the RCMP letter urged council members to not share the information publicly.

But Taggart said he's been hearing from many residents who want to know the exact number, adding he "certainly" thinks it should be public so the scope of any staffing issues is out in the open.

Clarke said the letter also outlined the various RCMP resources that responded to the shooting across both days, including more than 100 members.

She said Colchester County RCMP officers immediately responded to the call in Portapique, along with on-duty members from Millbrook, Cumberland County, Pictou County and East Hants.

After that, more members from nearby districts were brought in as well as an "experienced on-duty risk manager" and multiple dispatchers in Truro. In addition to those members, Clarke said several provincial units including the Critical Incident Command Team, Emergency Response Team, Police Dog Service, Crisis Negotiators, and Major Crime Unit were immediately mobilized to support the ongoing situation.

However, the closest municipal police force in Truro was not asked to respond directly at any point.

Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada
Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada

Through the police services review, Taggart hopes to find out whether more officers should be brought in, or at least how the RCMP plan to ensure six officers are always able to respond in emergencies.

Taggart said entering into a contract with the Truro municipal police service instead is also an option the review will address. He added he doesn't have a preference who carries out the policing, as long as there are "full shifts."

"We know we're not safe anymore. And so I think it's my responsibility as a councillor to understand what needs to be done, to try and make us a little bit safer," he said.

Taggart also noted the police review is especially important in a rural area like Colchester County, in light of a 2019 Statistics Canada report showing that police-reported crimes were 23 per cent higher in rural areas than in urban areas.

Short-staffing a national issue

Even if council asked for more RCMP officers in their area now, Taggart isn't confident those positions would be filled since the Mounties have a national staffing issue with their rural policing contracts.

Experts have said it's common for small RCMP detachments in rural areas to be short-staffed, especially on weekends. According to a December 2018 internal document, the RCMP looked to adapt their recruitment strategy to convince more women and visible minorities to join.

When RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki took over in 2018, her briefing binder noted that the RCMP has a growing vacancy rate. In the past five years, there had also been a "dramatic" increase in the number of new recruits required to fill operational vacancies and program requirements.