Tough questions about the Moncton shootings

The RCMP commissioner promises a thorough review, but should the Mounties be investigating themselves?

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Mark Blinch/Reuters

A month after three RCMP officers were killed and two wounded during a shooting rampage in Moncton, N.B, grief is giving way to hard questions.

How, precisely, did the shooter manage to ambush so many trained officers? Were the Mounties properly armed and equipped? How did local RCMP commanders handle the crisis? Could any of the shootings have been prevented?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Can the RCMP answer those questions on its own?

There is considerable debate within the organization on that last point. On June 25, Commissioner Bob Paulson sent an internal email to officers promising a prompt and thorough internal review led by Phonse MacNeil, a retired assistant commissioner who used to be Nova Scotia’s top Mountie. This alone is an unusual step, as police typically wait for criminal investigations and trials to play out before embarking on their own internal reviews.

In explaining the urgency, Paulson told the force’s 22,000 members that he wants “to fully understand the facts, learn from them and if required, change our practices promptly,” adding: “The safety and security of our members demand it.”

Reports suggest he wants the results on his desk in about 90 days.

That the RCMP brass would want to know how and why five of its members were cut down in a single gun incident makes sense. You’d hardly want to stop the RCMP from engaging in constructive self-examination.

The haste in this case, however, appears to be born of bitter experience. Officers waited nearly six years after the 2005 shooting of four officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., before getting meaningful answers to the aforementioned questions—in that instance, from a provincial fatality inquiry. The delay, and the sense that senior commanders were not accountable for their decisions, fueled outrage within the rank and file. It played no small part in a unionization drive that culminated this winter in a Supreme Court challenge of laws preventing Mounties from forming an independent labour organization (a decision is pending).

Surely RCMP management is loath to heap more tinder on its already volatile relations with its own officers. But will a single internal review be enough?

Not likely. Over the past few days, I’ve spoken with leaders of that unionization drive, who say that review should be led by an outside agency like the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). They’re also demanding a public inquiry into the RCMP’s operational model, which they believe leaves officers vulnerable: RCMP members, they note, are spread thinner on a per capita basis than their counterparts in other forces. That makes them a cheaper option, but also means they must patrol alone, in areas far away from SWAT units equipped with the weaponry necessary to handle crisis situations.

If a public inquiry sounds like overreach, consider that federal regulation bans officers from publicly criticizing “the administration, operation, objectives or policies” of the force. “Members want to be called into a court of inquiry, where they’re sworn,” says Rob Creasser, a retired Mountie from Kamloops, B.C. who now speaks for the Mounted Police Professional Association. “If they come out and are critical of the RCMP, they could be subject to discipline for simply telling it like it is. And that—pardon my French—is bulls–t.”

Certainly there are pressing issues to be aired, not least relating to firepower. Since Mayerthorpe, RCMP command has twice been warned—once by the Alberta fatality inquiry; once by Darryl Davies, an academic it hired to look into the issue—that its officers are under-armed given the (mostly illegal) proliferation of restricted and prohibited assault weapons among the criminals they face.

To make up the gap, the RCMP has approved the use of Colt C8 carbine assault rifles, which fire .223-calibre bullets at high velocity and accuracy, and include 30-round magazines. But the force is nowhere close to having one available to every officer on patrol.

Further slowing the rollout, say insiders with knowledge of the guns, is the Mounties’ decision to buy a “Cadillac” version of the C8 worth $4,950 per weapon, and to adopt a training standard similar to that of JTF-2, the elite military special forces unit.

All told, sources told Maclean’s, it costs the RCMP about $10,000 and five working days to equip and train three to five officers on the C8s. The OPP, by contrast, equips its officers with a stripped-down version of the same rifle worth about $2,800, and trains them within two days.

And since funding for the RCMP C8s must come from detachment budgets, local commanders in some cash-strapped units must find savings elsewhere to bring them in. “I’ve talked to a lot of RCMP officers members who have never seen one of these things,” says Kent Taylor, a retired OPP officer who trained colleagues on the C8, and who now has a son in the RCMP. “On one hand, Commissioner Paulson can make a good case. He can say: ‘we’ve got the best weapons and training course in Canada.’ That sounds good, but there’s really a great deal more to it.”

Paulson already appears to making some sort of case. In his email to officers, he said the Codiac detachment had four members trained on the C8 and six of the actual guns, “all of which were otherwise deployed in training and therefore unavailable;” he went on to warn members against “superficial, easy and incomplete” analysis of the shootings. And it’s true: We don’t yet know whether the C8s, rather than, say, the 9mm service weapons most officers carry, might have altered the balance of power between them and the shooter. From the outset, he seemed to have the drop on every Mountie who rushed the scene.

Then again, here we are, nine years after Mayerthorpe, and you have to wonder why senior command has not yet carried out one of the key recommendations flowing from that disaster—at least not fully. Maybe Phonse MacNeil’s will take an unflinching look at that question. Maybe he’ll do the same with many others to arise before the door can be closed on this terrible event.

Even if he does, you can hardly blame rank-and-file officers if they want something more, from somebody else.

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