The level of preparation and response capacity of the RCMP faced significant criticism today from the leader of the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team (ERT). Cpl. Tim Mills, who has since left the Force, testified today, along with fellow ERT member, Cpl. Trent Milton. Their testimony was preceded by a very short (15 minutes) presentation of a 70-page Foundational Document on the ERT response.
The ERT squad was called to Portapique the night of April 18, 2020 to lead the charge in finding and stopping Gabriel Wortman, though spent much of the time overnight helping extract residents, including Clinton Ellison, from the community. They also investigated a suspicious sighting of a possible person with a flashlight across the river on the Five Houses side (which turned out to be house lights behind a tree blowing in the wind).
Cpl. Mills described how technological issues and malfunctions limited their effectiveness and the speed at which they could operate. They did not have GPS capability in their vehicle, so could not be sent coordinates for specific scenes. Instead, they had to get directions over the phone from other officers. This lead to some confusion through the night.
Crucially, the ERT squad was not able to use their Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK), which is a system that connects each individual officer to a GPS, and then for the team leader to be able to track them in real time and direct members to the most appropriate locations. By knowing where everyone else is located, also allows for more officers to engage in a situation, and significantly decreases the risk of any officer-on-officer shootings. ATAK is known among officers as the leading technological tool for active shooter situations.
Another very effective tool is the use of a helicopter with infrared scanning capability, which was an important recommendation after the Bourque shootings in Moncton. This is something that the RCMP helicopter has, but that helicopter was not available that weekend, as it was off for scheduled servicing and (incredibly) no backup plan was in place. The ERT squad was not at all surprised that the RCMP helicopter was not available, as it is often out for servicing, and there are only two pilots. The Department of Natural Resources helicopter that was eventually called in is only usable in the daytime, and does not have infrared heat-identifying capabilities.
Cpl. Milton discussed drones as a partial replacement for helicopters in those situations. He had a drone, with heat seeking abilities, which he used briefly on the morning of the 19th. There are now even better drones used by the ERT squad.
We have already heard how the ERT squad was on the scenes of the Fisher home, the Shubenacadie roundabout, and ultimately the Big Stop. At the final location, both witnesses today noted that after Csts. Hubley and MacLeod shot him, they saw Cst. Stevenson’s pistol fall out of the killer’s hand when they approached his vehicle.
In addition to his critiques of the RCMP’s lack of technological prowess, Cpl. Mills was also highly critical of their approach to mental health. He described how five of the thirteen officers on the ERT squad are “part timers”, meaning they also do general duty shifts and are outside of his command to some extent. Cpl. Mills felt it was best to try to keep the whole squad together for a week or two, not in the field but rather doing reports and other necessary administrative work. This would be (and was) consistent with mental health advice from psychiatrists. It is also consistent with what we learned in the Desmond Inquiry about soldiers coming back from being in battle. They need to stay together, keep busy, and be around like-minded people.
This (seemingly reasonable) request was denied by Cpl. Mills’ supervisor. Cpl. Mills called the way the ERT team members were treated by RCMP management as “disgusting”, and it is the reason why he subsequently left the force. Cpl. Milton said at least some of the ERT members were contacted by RCMP peer support people, but said they were mostly junior members doing the calling, who could not be of much real assistance. He felt the calls were just made so that the RCMP could ‘check a box’ and say they did something, without bothering to ensure that the intervention was effective.
Cpl. Mills was very critical of the RCMP management as well, calling the assignment of two issues management officers to the MCC who are married to senior NS RCMP supervisors “corrupt”, and an attempt to “cover up” what had gone wrong. This capped off several hours of testimony which was highly damaging to the RCMP, and which will also no doubt be the source of several recommendations for improvement by the MCC.
One final thought, on something that was not raised today. It seems possible, or maybe even likely, that if Wortman was indeed a police agent or informant that (if anyone) the ERT officers might be told of such a connection. It seems to me also that if that were the case, the retired and angry Cpl. Mills might have found a way to say so today. He did not, and was not asked about any such knowledge.
Tomorrow, Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday will testify. Then, on Wednesday, we will hear from Staff Sgts. Jeff West and Kevin Surette.