June 10, 2022

MCC Day 35 – Helicopters, Halifax Police, Radios, and No Update on Banfield

There were foundational documents presented today dealing with the (ultimately futile) helicopter efforts, assistance from the Halifax Police, and the 911 and radio systems in NS. These presentations were followed by a witness panel on the radio system in NS, and by submissions from the lawyers for the participants summarizing the key points in the evidence we heard this week and last, and identifying gaps in what we have heard so far.

Much of the helicopter evidence has already been discussed in media reports. What should have been the most important aid to the search for the killer was never helpful in any way. The one RCMP helicopter that serves NS and NB was out of service for nearly two and a half months around the time of the mass shooting, and there was no backup plan in place.

There were military helicopters in Greenwood and Halifax, but (despite also being federal agencies) they were not deployed. NS Department of Natural Resources has four helicopters, but they could only fly during the day, and when they did become involved the morning of April 19, 2020, they were always a step or two behind the action.

The helicopter was circling Portapique while Wortman was travelling from Debert to where Lillian Campbell was killed. Then, when police thought Wortman was at the Fisher residence, the helicopter kept too much of a distance to be able to see anything. While the helicopter was refueling, Cst. Stevenson, Joey Webber, and Gina Goulet were killed. Helicopters could have been the most valuable response tool for the RCMP, but they were never involved in a helpful manner.

Halifax Regional Police were helpful, though not as helpful as some within the force may have wished. HRP officers checked on Wortman’s denture clinic and told the RCMP there was a decommissioned RCMP car there covered in snow. They also received the photo of the replica car from Maureen Banfield, and passed that on to the RCMP. Later, the HRP Emergency Response Team travelled towards the Big Stop as word was received that the killer was travelling in the direction of Halifax.

A retired Sergeant from the HRP ERT squad has spoken out to say that he was upset that all available resources were not deployed to assist the RCMP, and that the two ERT squads could have worked together. It is not clear, however, that more HRP resources would have made any difference in retrospect.

There has been considerable evidence throughout the hearings about problems with the police radio system. Officers could not get through to each other at crucial times, and many were using cell phones and email to communicate so as to avoid tying up the limited radio bandwidth.

Nova Scotia has two radio systems for use by police, ambulances, fire departments, natural resources, and department of highways officials. The older version is owned by the Province, and is called the NS Integrated Radio Network. It was developed in 1978, has fallen into disrepair, and has been replaced by the Trunk Mobile Radio system, which is owned by Bell. As we heard from Michael Hallowes, the Australian emergency alert expert, such systems should really be owned by the government.

If you talk to any ambulance driver or fire fighter, they will tell you that the radios do not work everywhere in NS, though they are supposed to have that capability. The TMR radios in vehicles have GPS capability enabled, but have limits in terms of use capacity. If you talk on the radio for even 30 seconds or so, the wattage available can be cut by half. As more people join a particular radio channel, that capacity diminishes even further.

The handheld portable radios have only about a tenth of the wattage of the mobile car radios, and though there was evidence that once an officer is outside their car, there is no more ability to track them by GPS, I am told that the portable radios do in fact have this capacity, but that it would be considered an add-on feature by Bell, and would add to the cost. So, it would seem that someone made a decision to decline that capability for budgetary reasons.

Having GPS capability would have allowed a second IARD team to enter Portapique in those crucial first minutes, potentially allowing the RCMP to have located the killer before he escaped.

The final part of the proceedings involved submissions from lawyer for the participants. As I mentioned in my YouTube summary, it was good to see some of the younger lawyers getting a chance to speak. We are seeing some talented junior lawyers during the MCC, questioning witnesses and making these important submissions.

In particular, Alix Digout from MDW Law made a strong point that the RCMP has shown that it has not learned from the MacNeil Report, which was prepared after the Moncton RCMP shootings. Recommendations have not been implemented, and the Staff Sergeants who were asked about it said they had not read it. That does not bode well for the RCMP taking a constructive view of whatever may emerge from the MCC.

Among other things, June 9th also marks three months since Lisa Banfield was referred to restorative justice, rather than proceeding with her charge of supplying ammunition. There has been no update over that time on her cooperation with the MCC, or with the RJ process. Restorative Justice usually takes 2-3 months to complete, and time is marching on in the MCC proceedings. Hopefully someone will ask the MCC for an update on the extent of Ms. Banfield’s cooperation and plans for her testimony.

Coming up on Monday, the Frank Magazine application to have the videos from the Big Stop released will be heard by the Commissioners. It is an application that should be supported by all parties, as it gives the best evidence available of those final moments, yet we can expect its release to be opposed by lawyers for the RCMP, and perhaps the MCC itself.