Incident commanders feared roadblocks could lead to more deaths in Nova Scotia mass shootings

Two of the RCMP officers tasked with responding to the mass shooting in Nova Scotia said they decided against erecting roadblocks for fear it would allow the shooter to kill even more people.

Retired Staff Sergeants Jeff West and Kevin Surette testified Wednesday before the Mass Casualty Commission investigating the April 2020 mass shooting, when a gunman killed 22 people in the province.

The pair were asked about their thoughts on using the roadblocks at around 10.20am on April 19 on Wednesday after the gunman killed strangers he had met as well as acquaintances.

Surette said he pushed not to block roads like Highway 102, the main artery through Truro, even though it was a choke point between the northern and southern parts of the province. .

He said such a roadblock could easily have generated a line of cars two kilometers long. Since they knew the shooter was killing “randomly,” Surette said he didn’t want to put anyone in further danger.

“We knew there would probably be a shooting at some point,” Surette said Wednesday.

“We didn’t want a shooting to happen in front of a line of civilians parked on 102, probably getting out of their cars and looking around to see what’s going on.”

He said the “lesser of two evils” was the plan they had decided on: placing officers at strategic points along highways to monitor intersections.

Both West and Surette said the critical 1 p.m. incident that turned into a manhunt for a mobile gunman was a situation they reacted to based on their decades of experience — but this was not something the RCMP had ever trained them for.

RCMP investigators are looking for evidence at the location where Const. Heidi Stevenson was killed along the highway in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The scenario Surette feared — citizens stopping to ask questions at the scene of a shooting — happened later that morning around 10:50 a.m. in Shubenacadie, where the RCMP constable. Heidi Stevenson was killed by the shooter after a shootout between the pair. Joey Webber, a man who stopped to try to help her as she passed, was also killed.

Investigative documents show that several people in nearby cars saw the shooter’s shooting with Stevenson at a highway interchange, drove straight past while he was still there or were walking on foot, and approached law enforcement officers. RCMP who later guarded the scene.

West and Surette were the two critical incident commanders (CICs) on call the night the shooting began on April 18. there was probably an active shooter situation in Portapique.

West let Surette know he was being called in to take charge of the incident and bring in resources like the Emergency Response Team, and arrived at the makeshift command post at Great Village near Portapique after 1 o’clock in the morning. Surette, who was based in Yarmouth, made his way to Great Village a few hours later to offer support to West.

They also filled in information gaps, including the fact that they didn’t know until eight hours after a witness to the shooter was shot but survived.

Key information not transmitted from the first hours

The inquest heard Portapique residents Andrew and Kate MacDonald were shot by the gunman from his fake cruiser but managed to quickly get away and met the first RCMP officers who responded to the community just before 10:30 p.m. on April 18.

The MacDonalds were on the phone with 911 when the shooting happened, and Kate was eventually transferred to the risk manager, Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill. She told him the shooter was in a police car that had scratches.

The two MacDonalds spoke with officers at the scene and Kate told Const. Vicki Colford about a side road out of the community that exited near an old church on Highway 2. Colford radioed this information at 10:48 p.m.

Police did not interview Andrew again until after 5 a.m. on the 19th, and West said he finally learned his information around 6:30 a.m. on April 19 when Halliday told him.

Halliday testified Tuesday that he also did not know of Andrew’s existence until about 3:30 a.m. during a debriefing with the first team of officers who met the MacDonalds in Portapique.

Commissioners ask how to fill the void

West said he was never told Colford’s show about a side outing and he couldn’t “speculate” why he was only told about Andrew’s evidence hours later.

“It’s a little surprising that you would arrive and take command three hours later without the information about Andrew MacDonald reaching you, and certainly not reaching you until the next morning,” Commissioner Kim Stanton said Wednesday at West.

“What is the structural gap that would ensure this kind of information is captured and shared?”

West said he didn’t have a “simple answer” because he was unable to read reports on the drive to Great Village and relied on conversations with Halliday to fill him in. When West arrived at the command post, he said there was no time to review 911 transcripts or peruse past radio logs.

West suggested that someone in a crime analyst role sifting through the huge volume of information and picking out the essentials would have been helpful, rather than “relying on word of mouth”. But, he said, no officers are assigned to this role in any critical incidents of which he is aware.

“There is clearly a gap there,” Surette said.

The public hearings of the inquiry will resume next Wednesday.