The RCMP watchdog says Mounties improperly took guns from flood-stricken homes in Alberta two years ago — seizures that angered High River residents and fostered mistrust of the national police force.

In a report released Thursday, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission blames the mistakes on poor leadership, lack of guidance and failure to communicate with the public.

The RCMP had legal authority to forcibly enter evacuated homes during the natural disaster and even to seize loose firearms in plain view, the commission report says.

The Mounties say the guns could have posed a hazard, as there were reports of break-ins and thefts, and there were over 300 people — including one high-risk offender — who refused to evacuate.

Under the Criminal Code, such seizures did not require a court-approved warrant, but officers failed to take the necessary next step of reporting their actions to a judge.

In addition, RCMP members exceeded their authority by seizing some guns that were properly secured or that were not "in plain view," the commission found.

In all, 609 firearms were taken from 105 homes.

RCMP 'failed to comply with legal requirements'

"While RCMP members, acting on their own initiative and with little guidance, may have acted with public safety in mind, they nonetheless failed to comply with legal requirements concerning the seizure of firearms," the report says.

"Had the RCMP reported their seizures to the court, it may have addressed many of the concerns and criticisms from residents, the media, and politicians."

In June 2013, heavy rainfall caused the Highwood River to swell, uprooting trees and engulfing cars and homes.

During the crisis, RCMP, provincial and municipal police, the military, first responders and volunteers rescued some 800 people.

Overall, emergency personnel, including the Mounties, did "a remarkable job" responding to this natural disaster in the initial days, the report says.

What should have been a story about heroic actions of many RCMP members during the devastating flood turned out to be "something far different" for the force, the commission notes.

'Contradictory or incomplete' information

Watchdog staff interviewed dozens of people and reviewed over 10,000 pages of documents, emails, notes and seizure logs, as well as more than 1,000 images and 50 videos.

The commission says RCMP leadership failed to adequately plan for communications with the public during the catastrophe, which prompted difficulties when word of the forced entries and seizures began circulating.

"What we found was that, all too often, social media filled the gap that the communications people were unable to fill," commission chairman Ian McPhail said in an interview.

"And in some instances contradictory or incomplete information was communicated to the public."

The report makes several recommendations, including creation of:

  • a national crisis communications handbook;
  • guidelines on seizure of firearms, ammunition and contraband during disasters;
  • special forms to ensure better note-taking about forced entries.

The commission will issue a final report once the RCMP responds. McPhail said he would be surprised if the recommendations were not accepted and implemented.

"They're all doable. They don't require huge expense," he said.

"They simply require a more focused attention to how to respond to natural disaster situations."