How much will we ever know about the N.S. shootings police investigation?
'The RCMP should be more forthright with information,' says privacy lawyer David Fraser
Four days after a long and deadly shooting rampage ended at a gas station beside a Nova Scotia highway, many questions remain unanswered, and it's unclear when and what the public will learn.
"This investigation is complex. This will take time, as we want to be as thorough as possible," RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said at a media briefing on Wednesday, which was the last time police released any updates.
The shooting rampage began Saturday night, lasted about 13 hours and spread across much of Colchester County.
To date, RCMP have said 22 victims were killed by the gunman and an RCMP officer was injured. On Thursday night CBC News revealed the existence of another victim: the gunman's girlfriend, who survived the rampage.
Questions abound, including:
- Could the death toll and number of people injured change?
- How did the victims die?
- How many people were injured?
- What weapons were used and how were they acquired?
- What was the gunman's motive?
- What relationship, if any, did he have with each of the victims?
- How did he come to possess an authentic RCMP uniform?
- Why didn't RCMP, with the help of the province, send an emergency alert while the shooter was on the loose?
The RCMP have no legal obligation to share information about their investigation, said David Fraser, a Halifax-based privacy and information lawyer. But "it's clearly in the public interest that they do so."
The gunman is dead and police say they believe he acted alone, so investigators do not need to protect evidence for the sake of a criminal prosecution.
"The RCMP should be more forthright with information," said Fraser.
"This has been a devastating tragedy without precedent in Nova Scotia and perhaps without precedent in Canada, and Nova Scotians want answers ... I think it's incumbent upon the RCMP to provide that information."
Fraser said his desire to know what happened goes beyond curiosity — it's about police accountability, especially when it comes to the decision to use Twitter to communicate about the active shooter, instead of issuing an emergency alert.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RCMPNS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RCMPNS</a> remains on scene in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Portapique?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Portapique</a>. This is an active<br>shooter situation. Residents in the area, stay inside your homes & lock your<br>doors. Call 911 if there is anyone on your property. You may not see the police<br>but we are there with you <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Portapique?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Portapique</a>.—@RCMPNS
"Law enforcement is an essential function of state and we're incredibly reliant on them. We need to have confidence in them that they're doing things in a proper and competent way," he said.
Fraser said short of the RCMP voluntarily releasing the details about their actions and their investigation, an independent inquiry could provide answers to some of the looming questions about the shooting.
In Nova Scotia, the chief medical examiner and justice minister have the authority to call for fatality inquiries for any violent deaths that occur in the province. The premier and cabinet also have the authority to call for public inquiries.
By law, hearings at fatality inquiries have to be open to the public, although the judge overseeing them can decide to take hearings in camera for "intimate or personal matters" or matters of public security.
At the end of any fatality inquiry, the presiding judge has to file a report that would include the identities of the dead, where, when and how they died and any "issues" identified in the request for the inquiry. Those reports exclude any in camera matters from the hearings and they don't assign any legal responsibility.
As Fraser put it, inquiries in Nova Scotia "are not quick."
The Desmond inquiry is the latest example. That public inquiry pertains to Cpl. Lionel Desmond, who fatally shot his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, his mother, Brenda, and then himself in January 2017. The first six-week-long session of the inquiry wrapped up last month.
But inquiries are a possible mechanism "by which information can be pulled out of the RCMP and others," Fraser said.
A spokesperson for the medical examiner's office said it was "premature to consider a public inquiry at this time."
Calls for patience
On Wednesday, the National Police Federation called for the public to be cautious with "early speculation," saying in a news release it "damages morale" among first responders.
"I hope Canadians join us in allowing the investigation into this tragic event to unfold as it should and focus now on mourning the senseless loss of life, showing the families of all the victims that we are united behind them," Brian Sauvé, president of the federation, said in the release.
Retired RCMP investigator Bruce Pitt-Payne said he didn't expect RCMP to release the details of their investigation any time soon.
"Like anybody else I'm very curious, but curiosity isn't sort of a trump card right now. I think it's the integrity of that investigation is what's important," he said.
He acknowledged that with the shooter dead, there is no murder trial at stake, but he said there could still be important criminal investigations ongoing.
RCMP have said they're looking into whether anyone helped the shooter:
- Acquire his guns and an authentic RCMP uniform.
- Assemble a realistic replica of an RCMP cruiser.
Pitt-Payne said questions about the decision to notify the public about an active shooter via Twitter instead of with an emergency alert may be a suitable place to demand answers.
"Frankly, I don't know that that has anything to do with the actual investigation," he said.
Culture of being 'tight-lipped'
Fraser said he believes "most other police agencies" in Canada would have been more forthright with information at this point. He said the RCMP "have a history of being extremely tight-lipped, and institutionally being very self-protective."
He called it a "cultural issue" within the police agency.
Pitt-Payne said he understands why some RCMP officers may be inclined to be tight-lipped.
"Many police officers are scared to say something to the media for fear it's going to be twisted and that is going to come back at them," he said.
"I know and I think most police officers understand that that is not what most professional journalists would do. [But] I can tell you myself, it's been done to me. It's humiliating, it's embarrassing and it could cost a job.
"But there is something in the police culture ... that actually impedes some of the communication because there isn't trust."
In the case of the Nova Scotia shooting, Pitt-Payne said some questions simply can't be answered.
"There will never be a full true story found when main players are no longer alive," he said. "So with a little luck they'll find out why some of this happened. But there will be big chunks missing and we just have to accept that and then somehow try to move on."
If you are seeking mental health support during this time, here are resources available to Nova Scotians.
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