Two RCMP tactical officers testifying Monday at the inquiry examining the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting say responding was made more challenging by not having an adequately staffed team, overnight air support or the technology to pinpoint their locations.
Emergency Response Team leader Cpl. Tim Mills, who decided to retire six months after the shootings, and Cpl. Trent Milton, who took over team leader responsibilities, answered questions together in a witness panel.
In his testimony, as in his behind-the-scenes interview, Mills said he was proud of his team’s efforts but didn’t hold back on his criticism of his former employer, calling it a “broken organization.”
“The RCMP as an organization wants to give this impression they care about their members…. Commissioner Brenda Lucki has said herself, ‘We’ll do whatever we can. We can’t do enough.’ The way we were treated after this is disgusting, absolutely disgusting — it’s why I left the RCMP,” he said Monday morning.
He said senior management failed to support tactical officers in the weeks after the mass shooting by turning down a request for time to debrief together.
Mills said he proposed having the team work on administrative tasks at headquarters for two weeks in hopes it would help them process together the trauma they experienced.
But despite initial support from psychologists who met with the team, he said the eight part-time members of the group were told to return to their regular front-line duties in their home detachments or take sick leave.
“There are members off today because of Portapique, not working, that didn’t see what we [saw]said Mills. [They] didn’t experience what we experienced. We were at multiple sites, multiple casualties and they forced our guys back to work, our part-timers back to work, a week and a half after.”
Milton, who is still working, was more measured, but tested the recommendation to debrief together was consistent with what he’d learned at a SWAT team leadership course.
He said the instructor shared best practices for mental health support developed after other mass shootings, like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in the US, where high numbers of first responders left their positions afterward.
They were told that teams should “keep busy, you need to keep together and be with like-minded individuals. And that’s all we were asking for at that point in time,” Milton said.
In his interview with commission investigatorsMilton said the weeks after the mass shooting were difficult because of the refusal to allow part-time members to take two weeks away from front-line duties.
“It was kind of a huge jab … you’re telling me I now need to go home and sit in my basement by myself and try to cope with this by myself,” Milton told the inquiry in his interview. He remained at work but others took leave.
While some senior officers were supportive, Milton said there were “huge gaps” that “went beyond disrespect” and reflected “ignorance” of what they were going through.
He said, for example, the division’s commanding officer, now-retired Assistant Commission Lee Bergerman, never met directly with ERT after the mass shooting. He said Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who ultimately came to oversee the tactical team, didn’t show up for a meeting to discuss mental health strategies.
“The RCMP is very good at talking the talk and putting out that we’ve got all these mental health strategies in place, but the action implementation is…is severely lacking,” Milton told commission investigators.
No ability to track locations on phones
Both Mills and Milton testified the 13-person Emergency Response Team’s role was five members short of what had previously been recommended.
Milton, in his previous interview with the inquiry, said not having access to a phone app the team previously used to see each other’s locations “certainly diminished” their ability to quickly determine where officers were, particularly when they started looking for a suspect in a vehicle that looked identical to a marked RCMP cruiser.
Overnight in Portapique, NS, where the shooting rampage began the night of April 18, 2020, they had to rely on dispatchers to verbally explain directions over the radio.
In April 2020, the tactical team had five full-time members and eight part-time officers who assisted with high-risk situations across Nova Scotia. After learning of an active shooter in Portapique around 10:45 pm, they assembled at the RCMP’s Dartmouth headquarters and hastened to Colchester County.
The inquiry found they arrived at the scene between 12:35 am and 1:15 am
The commission’s report released Monday summarized the team’s actions in Portapique, Glenholme, Debert, Shubenacadie and Enfield.
Overnight in Portapique, ERT took over the lead on the ground from the general duty officers who were first on the scene. The tactical team spent the early-morning hours following up on possible sightings of the gunman, including nearly two hours — between 1:20 am and 2:20 am and then again from 3:25 am to 4 am — spent clearing properties slightly west of the subdivision where the gunman had killed 13 neighbors.
They also picked up Clinton Ellison, a man who had been hiding in the woods for hours after discovering his brother Corrie’s body, checked for vital signs on victims and surveyed the gunman’s burning properties.
For more than three hours, starting at 12:45 am, the Mounties were communicating on an unencrypted radio channel, which meant anyone with a scanner could have tuned in to hear the transmissions between the officers on the ground, their commanders and the dispatch center . The commission found using this public channel was an error but it didn’t explain why exactly it happened.
In the morning, they were starting to evacuate homes when a 911 call came in after a shooting about 40 kilometers away in Wentworth, NS They spent the next two hours frantically trying to track down the gunman, who by then was traveling between rural communities driving a replica RCMP cruiser killing strangers.
By the time a dog handler and a tactical officer shot and killed Gabriel Wortman at a gas station in Enfield, NS, 22 people, including a pregnant woman, a teenager and an RCMP officer, had been murdered. Others were injured and several homes destroyed by fire in the 13-hour rampage.
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