May 17, 2022

MCC Day 24 – Introducing RCMP Command Decisions

After having spent most of the proceeding time thus far hearing about what lower ranking officers saw and did, we finally had an opportunity today to hear from a more senior supervisor, Staff Sergeant Steve Halliday. S.Sgt. Halliday was in supportive command of the efforts early on to ensure there were adequate resources available to address the situation. He was in the command centre of the mass casualty throughout the night and morning hours of April 19, 2020, and was on the stand most of the day today describing how he directed resources, and exercised and delegated authority.

Without saying so directly, the MCC seems to be responding to criticism in terms of their procedures. For the second day in a row, the Foundational Document presentation was very short, just over 20 minutes long today (regarding a document that is 321 pages), and the bulk of the day was used for witness testimony.

Both the Foundational Document presentation and the direct questioning of S.Sgt. Halliday was conducted by Anna Mancini for the MCC. Ms. Mancini has only been a practicing lawyer for close to five years, but I thought did a very good job with the witness examination compared to her more senior colleagues. Following his direct testimony, S.Sgt. Halliday was cross examined by three lawyers for the families (though, like yesterday, there were no questions from the federal Department of Justice lawyers).

S.Sgt. Halliday has retired from the RCMP since the mass casualty, but unlike Cpl. Tim Mills yesterday, S.Sgt. Halliday did not seem motivated to bury the RCMP in any manner, though he also did not seem like he was trying to protect any individuals within the force. He answered questions directly, and was not making attempts to explain or justify the command actions of others, and at times expressed his disappointment with how things unfolded. An example of that is his unsuccessful attempts to get a helicopter involved early on in the overnight hours.

On the other hand, he seemed to be trying to provide a portrayal of a police force that reacted as well as could be expected, given the unprecedented nature of what they were facing.

Notably, there were five RCMP Superintendents in Nova Scotia ranking above S.Sgt. Halliday, but none of them, including Northeast Nova Superintendent Thompson, attended a command post during the events. This may suggest, like Cpl. Mills said yesterday, once an officer reaches a certain level, they become more of a political actor than a crime fighter.

There were several other Staff Sergeants involved in the mass casualty response, taking direction from Halliday. Crucially, he directed S.Sgt. MacCallum to issue a warning to the public just after 8am on April 19th, but that tweet warning the public did not go out until well after 10am, after S.Sgt. Halliday was asked to approve the language to be used.

On the communications side, S.Sgt. Halliday confirmed what he said in his statement about being concerned about tying up 911 and other resources should a public alert be issued. Contrary to what we heard last week from EMO experts, he felt that the public would panic, and there would be chaos, if an alert was issued about a replica police car.

From the evidence today, it seems clear that the police felt they had Wortman contained in Portapique, and that any notion of the road through the blueberry field being used was not passed up the chain to the commanders like S.Sgt. Halliday, and thus the containment of the scene was capable of being compromised by Wortman. Also, there were noises and explosions that had police thinking there were still threats in the area.

This helps explain (though not justify) the lack of public communication overnight. The commanders felt the situation was contained, and S.Sgt. Halliday said he figured media would start showing up in the morning, so he directed that a media relations officer be contacted to come in and deal with that. That was their only real thought of public communications, until Lisa Banfield’s interview details were relayed up the chain.

There was cross examination today as well, from Sandra McCulloch, Josh Bryson, and Tara Miller. This is better than had been the case, but still Ms. Miller noted that she was asking questions for her own client and for some of the other parties as well, so there are still unneeded restrictions on the abilities of the parties to question witnesses.

Tomorrow, there will be two more Staff Sergeants testifying. They are the two ‘critical incident commanders’, Jeff West and Kevin Surette.