January 1, 2022

SIRT Report on RCMP Shooting at Onslow Fire Hall Leaves Unanswered Questions

Just after 10am on April 19, 2020, with the Nova Scotia mass shooting killer still on the loose, having left Portapique 12 hours earlier and having committed further killings in the Wentworth area, two RCMP officers erroneously fired multiple shots at a fellow officer and a civilian emergency responder at the Fire Hall in Onslow.

Such incidents draw investigations by the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), which is designed to review police shootings to see whether charges may be warranted against an officer. SIRT is civilian-led, and independent from the police or government. SIRT is now led by retired NS Supreme Court Justice Felix Cacchione, and has a team of investigators made up of former and current police officers.

SIRT was established in 2010, initially under the direction of former Crown Prosecutor, Ron MacDonald, Q.C. It has generally been seen as a helpful, though not perfect, addition to the NS justice system, providing a public forum for investigations into allegations of improper police behaviour. Reports are found on the SIRT website for all investigations undertaken.

There are two incidents from the NS Mass Shooting that are subject to SIRT reports, this shooting at Onslow, and the fatal shooting of the killer at the Big Stop in Enfield. I will be reviewing that report as well, and posting my comments in the coming days. In both cases, there seem to be significant contradictions which should be clarified during the Mass Casualty Commission hearings.

The SIRT report states that two officers drove up to the Onslow Fire Hall in an unmarked Nissan Altima, saw a person they thought was Gabriel Wortman standing next to a marked RCMP car while wearing a high visibility orange and yellow vest, yelled to him to show his hands, and then shot when the person instead ducked behind the police car.

One of the officers also happened to be the officer (or perhaps one of the officers) who interviewed Wortman’s partner, Lisa Banfield that morning. That seems like a significant coincidence, given the dozens of officers involved in the situation. The SIRT report says that Ms. Banfield told police that morning that Wortman was wearing an orange vest and had a replica RCMP vehicle (though we also know that this information was also known to police the night before).

This particular officer was also familiar with the area, and so (the SIRT report states) he went out on patrol, seemingly outside the coordinated situational response the RCMP was developing, looking for the killer. This fact alone also seems significant, and unusual.

The two officers driving in the unmarked Nissan would have heard that three other people had been found dead that morning, killed by the same individual as had killed at least five people the night before, so the officers may reasonably have concluded that he was in the area, and extremely dangerous.

When the officers arrived at the Fire Hall, they were unable to get through on the radio to anyone due to the high volume of traffic on the police frequency. There was cell service in the area, but no mention is made in the report as to whether the officers tried to reach anyone that way. Instead, it appears from the report that they yelled from a distance at the suspected killer, shot at his location, and then soon left without talking to anyone else or confirming the status of the suspect.

There were others inside the Fire Hall who almost got shot as well, as it was being used as a comfort centre for those from Portapique who needed to vacate the community. The SIRT report notes, however, that it was not well known among officers that the Fire Hall was being so used, so these officers may not have been alerted to the possibility that other officers, firefighters, or EMT’s might legitimately be on the scene.

From one perspective, the one adopted by SIRT, it can seem as though there was just a terrible, but understandable mistake that fortunately did not result in anyone being hit by a bullet. Credible witnesses have since spoken out, however, raising significant questions about the SIRT report conclusions.

Several witnesses were close enough (either in neighbouring houses or driving by in a noiseless Toyota Prius at the same time) to be able to say the officers did not in fact yell out to the suspect, but instead got out of their car and started shooting almost immediately.

Questions have been raised by a local firefighter about sight lines, and whether in fact a vehicle approaching the Fire Hall could have seen a police car parked there from the distance claimed. The suggestion from this is that perhaps the officers were told that Wortman was at the Fire Hall, and so they went in shooting.

The report also omits to mention, or try to justify, why the officers then just left the scene without talking to anyone. If they realized their mistake, why not go check on the victims? If they did not, why not pursue the suspected killer? SIRT does not say, but we should expect this to be explored by the Commission.

Credible eyewitness reports describe a situation where there was either a sudden, panicked (or at least not cool-headed) reaction to seeing someone who might be the killer, or else one where the officers were deliberately fooled into thinking it was Wortman standing outside the Fire Hall. If it was the former, these officers are in the wrong line of work, and the SIRT report is flawed. If it is the later, then there is potentially much more to uncover about Wortman’s relationship with the RCMP.