The municipality of Colchester County, N.S., had been reviewing its RCMP service prior to a gunman’s deadly rampage through the rural community of Portapique earlier this month.
The county where the violence began currently has a 22-hour RCMP service. During the two hours a day when it isn’t staffed, there is an answering service and officers respond from home, according to the municipality.
County Mayor Christine Blair told CBC News that officers were on duty when the initial call came in from Portapique the night of Saturday, April 18.
But Blair did not say when exactly that was, what detachment responded or how many officers were on duty in the county at the time.
The RCMP said last Friday the initial call was for a shooting at a home. But the Mounties have also not disclosed where the responding officers came from that night or how long it took them to arrive in Portapique, which is located about 40 kilometres west of Truro.
It’s a key piece of the timeline that’s still missing as Canadians try to understand how one of the deadliest mass killings in the country’s history occurred and what, if anything, might have been done to stop it sooner.
When first responders did arrive, they discovered a grisly scene.
Nova Scotia RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said officers “located several people who were deceased, some of which were lying in the roadway. There were also several structures that were already fully engulfed in flames. In total, there were over seven locations where people were found deceased.”
In their nationally broadcast news conference last Friday, the RCMP laid out a timeline for Gabriel Wortman’s rampage, which began the night of April 18 and continued into the next morning, spanning dozens of kilometres and leaving 22 people dead. It ended when Wortman was killed in a shootout with police at a gas station in Enfield, 40 kilometres north of Halifax.
However, while the RCMP disclosed some times, they did not reveal when they first received the 911 call.
The RCMP also changed their timeline regarding their initial response. Earlier last week, the RCMP told the media they first got the call of an incident in Portapique at approximately 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. But at Friday’s news conference, Campbell said officers actually arrived on the scene at 10:26 p.m.
Responding to a followup email from CBC News, the RCMP declined to clarify the discrepancy in the initial response timeline or disclose when the initial 911 call came in.
“I’m not able to provide any more detail than we have provided today,” Nova Scotia RCMP information officer Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said in an email.
Concern about staffing
The RCMP website lists three detachments in Colchester County — Bible Hill, Stewiacke and Tatamagouche.
But active policing is conducted primarily out of one detachment, according to County Coun. Mike Gregory, a former RCMP officer whose 25-year career was spent exclusively in Nova Scotia, including a seven-year stint as commander of the Tatamagouche detachment.
“When I was in charge of this detachment here, we had detachment policing,” Gregory told CBC News. “Now, it’s called district policing, where everything is run out of one district. In this case it’s Bible Hill, and I don’t agree with that. I think once the members are taken out of the community they lose contact with the community.”
Colchester County, located in the north central part of the province, covers more than 3,000 square kilometres.
Staffing levels at rural detachments across Canada are an ongoing concern, according to the union representing Mounties, which is currently in negotiations with the RCMP on its first collective agreement.
“The RCMP provides the numbers the contracting provinces pay for,” said Pat Bouchard, Atlantic region director for the National Police Federation.
“If those hypothetical detachments are staffed at four members when it really should be six or eight, then you really can’t expect the four RCMP members to do the work of eight, can you? But this is exactly what’s expected of the members and the current reality in policing rural areas in Canada.”
Police service review
A release from Colchester County municipal council a year ago announcing the approval of the 2019-20 budget noted a concern that current RCMP service levels did not match what the county was paying.
“To this end, it is requesting a full review of service levels and value for payment. It will also assess alternatives for service delivery,” the release said.
The county currently pays $4.8 million per year for RCMP services.
“Given the importance of policing to our community, we are determining whether we have the appropriate number of officers to serve our 38,000 Colchester County residents,” Blair told CBC News in an email.
“We are working with the Department of Justice for that analysis and review, which will give us those answers.”
Blair said she has a great deal of respect for the RCMP officers and values their work in the communities, but “we still must be conscious of our responsibilities to our taxpayers.”
Bouchard said front-line Mounties provide an exceptional service to municipalities, “considering how police services are funded and administered.”
“What they should be asking is, ‘Are we paying for enough resources?’ Then a followup question could be, ‘Are we getting the resources we pay for?'”
The RCMP’s policing contract with the province is negotiated by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice.
On Friday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said he has asked the province’s justice minister about convening an inquiry into the killings.