At the center of the political storm that has erupted over the RCMP’s response to the worst mass shooting in Canadian history is a phrase used by police to justify withholding information about the cases.
In the weeks following the death of 22 people by a gunman during a 1 p.m. rampage on April 18-19, 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP officers have insisted that the disclosure of facts keys – including details of the weapons used – could “compromise the integrity” of their investigation. .
But what does this phrase really mean? And were the reasons the RCMP withheld these details from the public valid?
Internal RCMP documents released on Tuesday show that on April 28, 2020, RCMP Chief Commissioner Brenda Lucki told a meeting of senior officers that she was disappointed that the gun details were not disclosed at previous press conferences in Halifax.
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According to notes taken by Supt. Darren Campbell, Lucki, said she had promised the Prime Minister’s Office that the mounted police would release the descriptions, adding that the information would be “linked to pending gun control legislation which would make officers and the safer public”.
In response, Campbell wrote that he told Lucki that releasing these details could “jeopardize ongoing efforts” to determine how the killer illegally obtained two rifles and two pistols.
When Campbell’s notes were released Tuesday in a report prepared for the public inquiry into the tragedy, federal Conservatives and opposition New Democrats accused the governing Liberals of interfering in a police investigation in political purposes.
The Liberals denied the allegation, saying Lucki said nothing to do.
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Lost in partisan bickering was any discussion of the public’s right to know the firearms in question.
There is little doubt that most constables, like Campbell, were opposed to saying anything about guns. They believed the information, if made public, could warn those involved in the illegal supply of weapons to the killer.
“It is reasonable to believe that the (RCMP) was conducting an ongoing investigation into the source of the weapons,” said a retired constable who asked not to be named to protect his relationship with the RCMP.
“It could have implicated American partners, which would have made them less inclined to provide information that could threaten the investigation.”
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In November 2020, seven months after the shooting, the National Post obtained a list of the killer’s firearms, which was included in a briefing note prepared for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and obtained through the access to information.
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Three firearms were illegally obtained from the United States: a Glock 23 .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, a Ruger P89 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a Colt Law Enforcement 5.56mm semi-automatic carbine. A Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle came from a Winnipeg gun shop, but investigators determined it was also acquired illegally.
AJ Somerset, author of the 2015 book, “Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun,” said releasing those details was unlikely to hamper the RCMP’s investigation.
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“Once the shooter is identified, anyone with information on how these guns were obtained would immediately want to avoid talking to the police,” Somerset said in an interview.
“I don’t see how the identification of the weapons actually leads this person to become aware of something that they weren’t already aware of.”
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Somerset said the real problem is that law enforcement agencies in Canada have become accustomed to using the compromised investigation argument as a crutch.
“In Canada, the police don’t release information,” he said. “We’re a bit used to that, compared to the United States, where less than an hour after a mass shooting, we know everything about the weapons used.”
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Somerset said a former Toronto cop once told him that as a police officer he believed the public had no right to know what police investigations would uncover until there is a trial.
“In Canada, there is a cultural difference around the idea of who the police work for,” the author said. “The police in Canada, in general, do not consider themselves accountable to the public…. We saw it in (the Nova Scotia mass shooting case). No warnings were issued to the public and the police appeared to act in their own interests.
The lack of information
The public inquiry investigating the killings, known as the Mass Casualty Commission, heard that police were aware of an active shooter on the night of April 18, 2020, but no public warning to that fact was issued. aired the next day – 10 hours after the killing began.
On August 12, 2020, RCMP Sgt. Angela Hawryluk told a court hearing that search warrants used by the RCMP must remain heavily redacted to ensure the mass murder investigation is not compromised.
Search warrants are supposed to be made public after they are executed, with some exceptions. But in this case, the Crown produced redacted versions that were challenged in court by several media outlets, including The Canadian Press.
These documents also contained firearms information and much of what the RCMP had learned during their investigation.
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At one point, Hawryluk told the court, “I had no intention that any of the (search warrants) would come out to the public.”
This kind of radical approach contrasts with the way things were done in Canada, said Blake Brown, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
On December 6, 1989, shortly after a man shot and killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal, the public was made aware of the gun he
used: another Ruger Mini-14.
“But at some point the police stopped doing that,” said Brown, author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.”
“I don’t understand why this information can’t be released more quickly by the police. One of the themes of the Mass Casualty Commission highlighted the RCMP’s tendency to distribute very little information and treat the public as if they don’t need to know much.
Lucki and Campbell are expected to testify before the inquest later this summer.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2022.
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