June 1, 2022

MCC Day 29 – Alcohol-Fueled Command Decisions

In video posted yesterday evening, retired Sergeant Andy O’Brien testified about his role in the response to the mass casualty events. Sgt. O’Brien oversaw operations for the Colchester County RCMP, but was off duty on April 18, 2020 when he was contacted about the initial reports out of Portapique. He has stated that he had 4-5 drinks of rum that night, and though he was initially reluctant to take on any role, he soon had a radio and was giving directions to officers on the scene from his home.

Many of the participants in the MCC continued their boycott of proceedings, as a result of the accommodations granted to Sgt. O’Brien. The testimony was conducted by Zoom, and was not broadcast live. There was also no cross examination permitted, but rather the participants were to provide questions to Commission lawyers to ask.

Nothing about Sgt. O’Brien’s presentation or demeanor would convince a neutral observer that he required any accommodations. He was treated very gently at first by Commission lawyer Anna Mancini, who initially tended to read out long paragraphs of Foundational Documents relating to Sgt. O’Brien’s previous experience, then his involvement, and then asked him whether he agreed or had anything to add.

Later, however, there were opportunities for him to speak at length, and he was able to do so. He did not seek additional breaks, though there was an extra long lunch break, while the lawyers were supposed to be conferring on further questions for the witness. We were not told why the break took so long.

Ms. Mancini also gave Sgt. O’Brien (who she called “Mr.” O’Brien, presumably, and interestingly, at his request) an open field to explain his alcohol consumption. He said all the right things about not feeling impaired, but also not wanting the perception of his consumption to become an issue. He had his wife drive him to the detachment to get his radio, and then set himself up at his home, with his radio and laptop, to supervise and command.

Many judges take the amount of alcohol someone admits to consuming and double it to determine what they likely actually consumed. Cross examination questions may have revealed more about that element, where Sgt. O’Brien could have been asked about what he was doing, who he was drinking with, and whether shots were being measured or free-poured.

Even the seemingly tough question posed by Ms. Mancini, which effectively asked Sgt. O’Brien why he initially said he would and should not give supervisory instructions, but then soon thereafter ended up doing just that, was a prepared exchange for which Sgt. O’Brien was ready with an answer. He was asked why he told Cst. Grund not to take a second team of officers into Portapique, and said that he waited the 15 seconds for some other Sergeant or Staff Sergeant to answer what to him was a question with an obvious answer, and when they did not jump on the radio, he spoke.

Certainly, there is nothing improper about an officer who is off-duty having a few drinks at home on a Saturday night, nor even necessarily about such an officer giving instructions, if the instructions are correct. Here, it seems as though the best approach would have been to allow the officers on scene the autonomy to make decisions, rather than being overridden by off-site commanders.

Among Sgt. O’Brien’s roles in his time in the RCMP was ensuring new recruits were properly connected with mentors. From the instruction to Cst. Beselt to be cautious when he saw a person with a flashlight in the woods, to the instruction to Cst. Grund to not enter the Portapique community as a second team of officers, it seems like Sgt. O’Brien was acting like a cautious parent, holding back his officers from the aggressive actions they felt they should be taking.

Had there been cross examination, I expect someone would have asked about sending that second team in. Sgt. O’Brien was very concerned about potential “blue on blue” shootings, but it would seem that if the radio channel was cleared of extraneous commentary, the two team leaders could have been communicating by radio and thus coordinating their efforts.

It seems the issue emerging is the disconnect between information and decision making authority. The front line officers have the information, but off-site supervisors make the decisions. With the benefit of time, perhaps that additional wisdom is needed, but in an emergency the hierarchal structure seems to be a hindrance.

There is currently a panel discussion taking place about critical incident responses. I will have a reaction to the expert views being expressed once the day is complete.