It was one of a handful of interactions after more than a thousand traffic stops that stood out.
An RCMP constable testified Monday that in February 2020 he swore at Gabriel Wortman to get back in his vehicle after pulling him over for speeding and the 51-year-old immediately presented as a “clear threat” by walking back toward the cruiser in Portapique, N.S.
“The way he approached was very direct, purposeful. He looked infuriated, I had no idea as to who this individual was and why he’d be conducting himself in such a manner,” Const. Nick Dorrington told a public inquiry examining the shooting and arson rampage that injured some and left 22 people dead, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer.
The exchange “de-escalated quickly,” however, once Wortman was back in his vehicle and they had a brief conversation, Dorrington testified.
“He proceeded to tell me that he felt that he was being targeted,” and became compliant after Dorrington explained that the stop was in no way prompted by an earlier altercation Wortman had with Halifax Regional Police over a parking dispute, the officer said.
The gunman then brought up his affection for Ford Tauruses, that he had a number of them and collected police paraphernalia, but Dorrington said the minute-long conversation did not prompt him to have any concerns about public safety.
Dorrington, who spent 17 years in the army before joining the RCMP in 2015, was stationed in Colchester County and was one of the officers who responded to the mass shooting overnight on April 18 and into April 19. That weekend he was on call after working a day shift.
During Monday’s testimony, he was critical of one of his RCMP supervisor’s role in the response and said he didn’t agree with the decision to only send one team into the section of Portapique where people were killed. He also felt he should have been deployed to chase down the gunman the following morning.
After learning he’d pulled over the suspect a few months previously, Dorrington shared photos he took of the gunman’s licence and the back of the decommissioned Ford Taurus he’d been driving.
He said the vehicle he’d stopped had faded reflective strips from its time as an RCMP car and that it had a small Canadian flag on the rear by the trunk.
But, similarly to what several other Mounties have previously told the Mass Casualty Commission, while envisioning what the suspect was driving, he was never picturing a fully marked cruiser like the one the gunman put together and drove during the rampage.
Frustrated with positioning
Between midnight and 5 a.m., Dorrington and another officer were stationed on Highway 2 screening vehicles four kilometres east of crime scenes in Portapique.
Dorrington testified he “had a challenge” with Sgt. Andy O’Brien’s direction to set up there because he felt it was “in contradiction” to his training related to tracking down active shooters.
The public inquiry previously heard that the senior officers overseeing the response were concerned about the possibility of sending more than one team into the “hot zone” where the shooter was last seen due to the possible safety risk of officers being involved in crossfire or a “blue-on-blue” situation where they mistook each other for the suspect.
The commanders did not have GPS coordinates for general duty constables on the ground.
But Dorrington said that night he felt the approach should have been to use “as many teams as are necessary to move in locate and neutralize the threat” and agreed with commission counsel Roger Burrill’s suggestion that it caused him frustration.
Issues with supervisor’s role
During a behind-the-scenes interview with commission staff, Dorrington was critical of O’Brien’s involvement, given that he wasn’t on duty and was speaking on the radio from his home.
On Monday, he said that while he has since walked back criticism related to O’Brien’s training, he maintained that his involvement made it challenging to know who was in charge.
“To be receiving direction from Sgt. O’Brien, although I’m sure well intentioned, was creating … additional airtime on the radio, which is problematic. And it created, in my mind, confusion for the chain of command,” Dorrington said.
O’Brien and Dorrington worked closely together on Sunday in Portapique. Both remained in the community keeping an eye on the crime scenes.
Once calls started coming in about new shootings in the Wentworth area, Dorrington said he was “not allowed” to leave to help with the manhunt, despite making his case to O’Brien.
“I felt that given my skill set with previous military training in active theatre [along] with RCMP training, coupled with the fact that I had an unmarked vehicle, that I’d be perhaps the best positioned to leave my current location,” he said.
At one point, Commissioner Leanne Fitch asked Dorrington if he had ever taken or instructed courses in overseeing a critical incident response. He said he had not.
Dorrington said he was a sergeant in the military so had similar duties to O’Brien’s and was in charge of a unit in that capacity.
Passing along sighting of gunman Sunday morning
While in Portapique on April 19, Dorrington advised his wife to shelter in their basement. He said information gathered from the gunman’s spouse, Lisa Banfield, suggested he had a hit list and he was worried that he could be viewed as a target given he was the last Mountie to interact with the gunman.
The officers who interviewed Banfield in the back of an ambulance previously testified at the inquiry and said that while she told them her sister in Dartmouth could be at risk, they did not describe a hit list.
After learning of the situation, Dorrington’s wife called a friend who happened to notice a marked RCMP cruiser driving south toward the Halifax area on a secondary highway. Dorrington tried to figure out if an actual cruiser was in the area and then radioed to his colleagues after the possible sighting.
There was a lot of radio chatter at the time and Dorrington testified he felt there “was a significant delay” in the distribution of his message, which he felt was “pertinent and of high priority.”
Felt equipment was insufficient
Equipment and training was another area with which Dorrington took issue.
He said given that the RCMP predominantly polices rural parts of Canada, more active shooter training should be done outside with more of it focused on night-time scenarios.
Night vision goggles or hand-held devices to identify heat sources would also be helpful, he said, so that general duty officers wouldn’t have to wait for specialized resources like the emergency response team during a crisis.
Lawyer Sandra McCulloch, who represents many family members of people who were killed, asked Dorrington about comments he’d previously made to the inquiry about having had requests related to officer safety denied by a detachment commander prior to April 2020.
Those requests included a chair to restrain people who could be a physical risk to themselves or others at the detachment, Dorrington said.
He also requested rotatable spotlights for vehicles that he said would help illuminate long driveways and alleys better than the fixed lights on the lightbars on cruisers that only move when a vehicle does.
A request for push bars on patrol vehicles — which he said would be cheaper than repairing damage to vehicles — was denied about a week before two of the detachment’s cruisers were written off after one backed into another, he said.
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