An RCMP staff sergeant says he struggled for two years, wondering what might have happened during the mass shooting in Nova Scotia if he had heard two mentions of the fake car killer police equipped with a push bar during the hunt for the shooter who would kill 22 people.
Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers held his breath and wiped away tears while testifying in Truro, Nova Scotia on Wednesday at the public inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting.
On Sunday, April 19, Briers oversaw the RCMP dispatch center for the last four hours of the rampage. He testified that he was processing an enormous amount of information and that sometimes three phones rang at the same time.
Briers said he didn’t realize anyone had mentioned the distinctive equipment on the front of the gunner’s replica cruiser until he read the radio communications transcripts much later.
“I haven’t heard it either…I wish…it’s one of those regrets. If it had been reported, told to me, then we could have done a full radio show to let the members know, “Briers said.
Having that information would have allowed an officer who passed by the shooter on Highway 4 to identify him ahead of time and decide how to respond, Briers said. Cpl. Rodney Peterson only recognized the killer after their vehicles passed.
“And from then on, we don’t know how things could have changed. Because all it takes is one difference. I have to live with that. And I’ve been living with that for over two years,” Briers said.
By the time Peterson turned around, he had lost sight of the replica cruiser. RCMP did not catch up with the shooter for over an hour and a half, during which five other people were murdered.
As of April 2020, the Nova Scotia RCMP had only four vehicles equipped with push bars. Three were SUVs and one was a Taurus based in Kingston, Nova Scotia in the Annapolis Valley. Briers said the force could have pulled any of those vehicles off the road, had they been there.
Briers said he faced a “fire hose” of information flying at him after he started his regular shift as a risk manager. In the hectic hours that followed, he coordinated the arrival of additional officers and tried to keep up with what was happening on the ground, while managing and monitoring communications via email, text, his cell phone and his desk phone, the police radio. and various computer programs.
Briers’ role was to oversee dispatchers and relay information to critical incident commanders who were at another site.
He testified that he shared information he deemed important with the command team and that he left decisions such as recruiting additional officers and whether to issue a press release to them, as he didn’t know what other factors and information they needed to consider.
One of Briers’ tasks was to get Mounties from other areas to set up roadblocks and checkpoints in an attempt to contain the shooter based on his last known location. This involved calling supervisors in other parts of the province and determining positioning.
“It’s a very big area so I knew I needed more people,” he said. “It was multitasking to the nth degree…You’re trying to catch up with a person who knows what they’re planning to do and we have no idea.”
Thoughts on how things went
Briers said in hindsight he wished he had brought in extra officers and someone to help him process all the information sooner.
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said.
Briers said the RCMP had made changes since the mass shooting to allow a second risk manager to be called during a major event.
The officer working in the operations communications center provides assistance with any complaints received at the RCMP and a second person could oversee if there was an unrelated emergency in another part of the province.
While some attorneys representing the victims’ families boycotted Wednesday’s proceedings, those who remained questioned Briers about information that had slipped through the cracks.
Briers said one thing that would have really helped police was knowing the shooter’s activities and behavior in advance. He said he was troubled by the amount of information people who knew the shooter had and didn’t share until after the rampage.
“To let people know he had a marked car and not tell anyone. That’s huge,” Briers said.
He said he could understand that those close to the shooter might have been scared, but he said there was little the police could do when responding.
The shift started at 7 a.m.
Briers said he first learned of a situation in Portapique, Nova Scotia, on his way to his Sunday shift around 6 a.m.
His overnight counterpart, Master Sgt. Brian Rehill, called at the time to pass on “Coles notes” of what happened – that several people were dead, several buildings were burning and the tactical team was in the community trying to find the suspect, Gabriel Wortman, or his remains.
By dawn, 13 people from the small community along Cobequid Bay had been murdered, but police had not discovered them all and had yet to realize the shooter had escaped the previous night.
This Sunday morning, the shooter drove his replica cruiser to Wentworth, Nova Scotia, and killed nine other people: acquaintances and strangers he passed on the road, including a pregnant woman and a police officer. RCMP. Police didn’t realize he was on the move until a second batch of 911 calls poured in.
Replica of the cruiser identified during the 1st hour of shift
Less than half an hour after arriving, Briers requested an additional search of vehicles linked to Berkshire Broman Corp. because he heard that one of the vehicles on the shooter’s properties was registered there. It turned out that the replica cruiser was one of three decommissioned cruisers that the shooter registered under the company.
But Briers needed help getting that information because he didn’t have direct access to one of the province’s two databases, an issue he said he’s had for years.
“It wouldn’t have changed Portapique, but it’s just that the more information you have, the quicker you can get it yourself,” Briers said when speaking to Mass Casualty staff. Commission on November 18, 2021.
Halifax police also contacted him about the replica cruiser after the sister of Lisa Banfield, the shooter’s wife, showed them a photo.
Meanwhile, investigators in Great Village, Nova Scotia were interviewing Banfield from the back of an ambulance. She shared details about the cruiser and explained that her sister could be a target.
When Briers first inquired about the cruiser at 7:29 a.m., Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, who worked at the Great Village Fire Station, told him tactical officers had determined the car had been set on fire at the scene.
But shortly before 8 a.m., the tactical team confirmed that the damaged car did not have the “silent patroller” – a divider between the front and rear seats – or the light bar linked to the fake cruiser, and passed on this information to staff sergeant. Jeff West, who oversaw the entire response from the fire station command post.
Within minutes, Briers had informed the Halifax police and the RCMP had sent a lookout to police services across the province.
Carroll is expected to testify via Zoom on Thursday. As of April 2020, he was the RCMP District Commander in Colchester County, but has since retired.
Wednesday marked the first time hearings were held in Truro. The commission said locations are changing due to a combination of factors, including venue availability and the space required to comply with public health guidelines. Proceedings will return to the Halifax Convention Center on June 1.