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Simmering rift between RCMP, municipal police, boils over in N.S. inquiry

The mass shooting in April 2020 that scarred Nova Scotians has also strained the fraught relationship between the RCMP and municipal forces in the province, with leaders bringing their feud into the inquiry examining the massacre.

The inquiry has heard that tensions have escalated over the past two years due to disagreements over the mass shooting response, policing standards, tracking special services, funding and the emergency alert system.

Although senior officers on both sides have said the deterioration in the relationship has been at the senior management level, with minimal impact on front-line officers, a member of the Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry disagrees.

“The reality is it makes a huge difference to the people on the front line because, without the support of their senior leadership, you’re not going to have people stepping up,” Commissioner Leanne Fitch said Thursday when questioning Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella.

“They’re going to want to be out there working together. But if there’s barriers because there is lack of co-operation and communication in the relationships at the senior management level, we’re not gonna get past that, and that’s a disservice to public safety.”

Municipalities offered help 

During the mass shooting on April 18 and 19, 2020 when 22 people were killed, municipal police leaders reached out to the RCMP to offer help. 

Among them were Kinsella and Chief David MacNeil of Truro police, one of the nearest forces to Portapique, where the rampage began.

Julia Cecchetto, who was Kentville police chief at the time and head of the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association, sent an email on April 19 to all her fellow chiefs looking for resources. Most responded to offer what they could.

But the Mounties didn’t accept any offers of help from the municipal police forces during or after the 13 hour-rampage, as the gunman crossed the province killing residents and destroying homes. 

Instead, the RCMP turned to Mounties in New Brunswick for immediate support the night of April 18. In the months following the murders, RCMP officers from Quebec and Ontario were brought into Nova Scotia to relieve local members.

About 100 members of Halifax Regional Police were active in various roles during the weekend and also helped with some investigative work, but it was not in response to a request for help from the Mounties.

Chief Supt. Chris Leather, one of the senior Mounties in Nova Scotia at the time of the shootings, testified last month that bringing in municipal forces during a major event is “fraught with risk.”

“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,” Leather said.

Municipal forces have also complained they weren’t kept informed during the shootings. When he testified in June, MacNeil said he learned from news reports that the gunman had driven through Truro.

The gunman’s mock RCMP police vehicle is seen here driving on Esplanade Street in Truro, N.S., the morning of April 19, 2020. (RCMP)

A major breaking point between the RCMP and municipal forces came in April, when the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association voted to redesignate the RCMP to associate member status, with no voting power.

MacNeil has testified that the association reached that decision after a disagreement with the Mounties on several policy issues, some connected to the mass shootings and others that weren’t.

“It gave us a bit more of an independent voice,” MacNeil said.

MacNeil said the RCMP wanted the Nova Scotia chiefs to say the Alert Ready system fundamentally doesn’t work for police use, a position the chiefs didn’t support.

Both MacNeil and Kinsella have told the inquiry they knew issuing an alert was an option.

The RCMP’s demotion on the committee was “disappointing,” Commissioner Lucki wrote in a May letter to the chiefs, saying it undermined the association’s goals of developing deep cooperation between the police forces in the province.

Leather also said that when it comes to building trust and working together, “actions speak louder than words.”

“If you relegate and remove us from key associations, what do you think … the expectations are in terms of outcomes are going to be for that?  Nothing but more difficulties and challenges,” Leather testified. 

Although Kinsella said Thursday the RCMP wasn’t “kicked out” of the association, it was certainly a difficult day for all sides. He said the association would like to see the Mounties participate as associate members, but “they haven’t taken us up on that currently.”

RCMP move to track services caused concern

In January 2021, the RCMP began tracking requests from municipal forces for special services like police dog units or forensic identification services.

Hayley Crichton, executive director of public safety and security with the provincial Justice Department, said in a January commission interview that Leather made the suggestion to track requests so the government could understand the “significant” costs the RCMP absorbs from those calls.

Since then, requests have to go directly through the RCMP criminal operations officer and are flagged to the province — a practice that raised concern among municipal chiefs.

Kinsella said Thursday there were no conversations about the change between RCMP and chiefs of police before it happened, and there will be issues when anything is “thrust” on someone without warning.

Lee Bergerman, former assistant commissioner and recently retired commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, testifies last Monday in Halifax at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

Lee Bergerman, the retired commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, testified this week that the move caused “concerns” for municipal forces that they’d be billed for those services, but that hasn’t happened. 

“It was important for us as the RCMP to be able to track and tell our story to the province as to why we were in deficit because we weren’t always spending money within our own policing jurisdictions,” Bergerman said.

Although Crichton said the RCMP Act prohibits the Mounties from directly billing any municipality for their services, the roles and responsibilities for all police agencies in the province could be shifting when new standards are announced.

Policing standards issues widened ‘rift’

Although Crichton said the province has been working slowly on updating policing standards, it wasn’t until April 2021 that the Justice Department established two committees to finally wrap them up.

The standards, which Crichton said were last updated in 2003, set a “minimum base requirement” that all agencies must meet across the province. She said not only will they lay out how policing should be done, but also formalize access to those special services.

“Annapolis Royal doesn’t need to have a major crime unit, but they do need to have formalized access to one,” Crichton said. “What that means in terms of cost recovery … we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Bergerman testified that the RCMP’s push to bring in these standards has also widened the “rift” between the Mounties, provincial Justice Department, and municipal forces.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella testifies last Thursday at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

While Bergerman said the commission would have to ask a municipal chief why that has created an issue for them, she suggested it could be because the standards might require specialized units like emergency response teams — all of which are “cost-prohibitive for a lot of municipalities.”

RCMP members have also taken issue with the existing standards. Leather testified a main reason the RCMP opted to not take part in recent policing audits is because all forces are being measured against standards that are “non-existent or antiquated.” 

Issues with integration have worsened: Kinsella

Another point of contention has been tension over who has jurisdiction and control over certain cases and resources within the Halifax municipality, Kinsella testified.

Although Kinsella said he learned of issues with the current Criminal Investigation Division’s integrated model as soon as he took the chief’s job in 2019, the mass shooting “amplified it a little bit.”

Municipal and RCMP members in the division work side by side, but Kinsella said last August the Mounties pulled their detectives out of the division’s major crime unit where they had made up about 20 per cent of the members.

Kinsella said he’d understood that an incoming RCMP inspector didn’t think the structure was appropriate and decided to handle major crime cases in their Halifax territory on their own.

This echoes themes from a 2021 wellness report of senior Nova Scotia RCMP commissioned officers and civilian equivalents. Respondents described an ongoing “turf battle” over operational control and funding between the Halifax Regional Police and RCMP. 

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

Several participants also reported that despite the Mounties doing their best to be a “partner” in this integrated model, “the leadership of HRP was doing everything it could to undermine and break the relationship with the RCMP in order to access more resources from (Halifax Regional Municipality) and the province.”

When asked about how to move forward and rebuild bridges between the Mounties and municipal forces, Leather said major turnover at the RCMP senior level has presented a chance to start over.

RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather is questioned in July by lawyer Michael Scott at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in 2020. (Kelly Clark/Canadian Pres)

“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,” Leather testified.

The Nova Scotia RCMP has confirmed that Leather’s position of criminal operations officer is being filled by Chief Supt. Sue Black, while Chief Supt. Jeffrey Christie is taking the lead role as officer in charge of the Halifax RCMP.

Assistant Commissioner Dennis Daley will also soon take the top spot as commanding officer of the Nova Scotia Mounties.

Kinsella said he’s already been in touch with Christie, and when both he and Daley land in the province the Halifax chief is committed to coming to the table with them “in good faith.”

Model under review

There’s one main point on which the RCMP and municipal forces do agree — the current policing model in Nova Scotia does not seem to be working.

Officers from both sides have told the commission about the struggle to keep up with the demands of modern policing and technology with shrinking dollars and members.

While he was provincial justice minister with the former Liberal government, Mark Furey started the process of a police services review in December 2020. 

Public information on the progress of that review has been limited, and last summer Justice Minister Brad Johns said any such work was on hold until the outcome of the inquiry.

Two Nova Scotia municipalities where most of the shootings occurred, Colchester and Cumberland, have also started their own policing reviews examining the merits of keeping the RCMP as their police service compared to switching to a municipal force.

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