Nova Scotia

Colchester to wait for end of N.S. shooting inquiry before deciding fate of RCMP

The Municipality of Colchester is still mulling over whether to keep the RCMP as its police service or switch to an existing municipal force, but doesn't expect to make any decisions until after the conclusion of the public inquiry examining the mass shooting that started in the rural county in April of 2020.

Municipality asked to review RCMP service just days before April 2020 mass killing

The Municipality of Colchester is still mulling over whether to keep the RCMP as its police service or switch to an existing municipal force, but doesn't expect to make any decisions until after the conclusion of the public inquiry examining the mass shooting that started in the rural county in April of 2020. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Nova Scotia's Municipality of Colchester is still mulling over whether to keep the RCMP as its police service or switch to a municipal force, but doesn't expect to decide until after the conclusion of the public inquiry examining the April 2020 mass shooting that started in the rural county.

Colchester Mayor Christine Blair had indicated in February the county would "soon decide" on whether to move to an existing municipal force, but in a recent email to CBC News she said a decision will be made by the end of the year, "barring anything unforeseen." She said it would be premature to do an interview while the review is still underway.

Colchester officials made a formal request to the provincial Department of Justice for a review of the RCMP service on April 16, 2020, two days before the mass shooting, which began in the Colchester community of Portapique and resulted in the deaths of 22 people in several communities.

The reasons for the review were outlined in a letter sent to the Mass Casualty Commission in December. They include the lack of backfill for officers on leave, concerns that date back to 2015. A consultant's report presented to council in November also highlighted concerns about the level of police presence in the community. 

A technical report on police services in Nova Scotia done by a consultant for the public inquiry and released in February supports the municipality's concerns. It recommends not only increasing the number of RCMP officers in Colchester by six, but also the creation of a relief unit in Nova Scotia to deal with short-term and long-term vacancies. 

The relief unit would be made up of six full-time positions. Half would be stationed at Bible Hill and the other half would be stationed at Bridgewater or New Minas. But based on the number of calls and incidents, the technical report did not recommend a fully staffed detachment in Tatamagouche, which is currently served by officers out of Bible Hill.

Municipality had power to improve service, association says

The Nova Scotia division of the RCMP Veterans Association, which advocates for former and current officers, has taken exception to criticisms made by individual county councillors in Colchester about police visibility.

It wrote a letter to the municipality last year outlining per capita how much less Colchester paid per resident compared to the town of Truro, which has a municipal force.

According to a spokesman for the group, the municipality has always had the power to improve the service and could have approached the province or the RCMP. 

Steve Graham, the former commander of the Nova Scotia RCMP, analyzed budgets and found residents of Truro pay about $500 each for policing and people in Colchester County pay $136. 

"They have one officer for approximately 1,300 residents, the town of Truro has one officer for approximately 350 residents. If you want more service you need to require more officers," Graham said in an interview with CBC last year.

"If you want more policing resources in your community, there's a very clear process to do that. And all the municipality has to do is notify the province that they want to add to the establishment of policing. So it's very much in the hands of the municipal council in Colchester." 

Colchester spent $5 million on its RCMP service in 2020-2021. According to the minutes of a county council meeting on Jan. 27, the municipality is looking at a 23.7 per cent increase over six years to cover retroactive pay increases for RCMP officers. 

Graham insisted the RCMP model is still a financially responsible option.

"Colchester pays almost a million less than Truro for policing three times the population and 100 times the geographical area to cover, so if they want more policing they could invest more money and still get very good dollar value," said Graham.

Short on officers

Graham said having few officers to cover a large area means people have been stretched to the limit. 

"They were running on a treadmill, operating in an environment of scarcity," he said. 

While testifying during the Mass Casualty Commission proceedings last month, Const. Stuart Beselt, who works out of Bible Hill and was one of the first officers on scene in Portapique, said it would not be unusual to drive 1,000 kilometres covering calls in Colchester County. By comparison, he said when he was stationed in Moose Jaw, Sask.,100 kilometres would mark a busy shift. 

Nearby Cumberland County also began a review of its RCMP service at the end of March. It too is considering alternative policing options, such as the use of the town of Amherst's police force. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pam Berman

Reporter

Pam Berman is CBC Nova Scotia's municipal affairs reporter. She's been a journalist for almost 35 years and has covered Halifax regional council since 1997. That includes four municipal elections, 19 budgets and countless meetings. Story ideas can be sent to pam.berman@cbc.ca

with files from Elizabeth McMillan

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