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RCMP officer speaks of ‘regrets’ that have haunted him since mass shooting

An RCMP staff sergeant says for two years he’s struggled, wondering what might have happened during the Nova Scotia mass shooting had he caught two mentions of the killer’s fake police car car being equipped with a push bar during the hunt for the shooter who would kill 22 people.

Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers caught his breath and wiped away tears while testifying in Truro, N.S., Wednesday at the public inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting.

On Sunday, April 19, Briers oversaw the RCMP’s dispatch centre during the final four hours of the rampage. He testified he was processing a massive amount of information and sometimes had three phones ringing at once. 

Briers said he did not realize anyone had mentioned the distinctive piece of equipment on the front of the gunman’s replica cruiser until he read transcripts of radio communications much later. 

“I didn’t hear it either time … I wish … this is one of those regrets. If that had of been pointed out, told to me, then we could’ve done an all-radio broadcast to give members a heads up,” said Briers. 

Having that information would have allowed an officer who drove by the shooter on Highway 4 to identify him in advance and decide how to respond, Briers said. Cpl. Rodney Peterson only recognized the killer after their vehicles passed.

“And from that point forward, we don’t know how things could have changed. Because it only takes one difference. I have to live with that. And I’ve lived with that for two plus years,” Briers said.

RCMP officer speaks of 'regrets' that have haunted him since mass shooting
Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

By the time Peterson turned around, he’d lost sight of the replica cruiser. The Mounties didn’t catch up to the gunman again for more than an hour and a half, during which time five more people were murdered. 

In April 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP only had four vehicles with push bars. Three were SUVs and one was a Taurus based in Kingston, N.S., in the Annapolis Valley. Briers said the force could have pulled any of those vehicles off the road, had they been on it. 

‘Firehose’ of information

Briers said he was faced with a “firehose” of information flying at him after he started his regular shift as risk manager. In the hectic hours that followed, he co-ordinated bringing in additional officers and tried to keep track of what was happening on the ground, all while managing and monitoring communications coming through via email, texts, his cellphone and desk phone, the police radio and various computer programs. 

Briers’s role was to supervise dispatchers and convey information to the critical incident commanders who were at another site.

RCMP officer speaks of 'regrets' that have haunted him since mass shooting
Commission counsel Anna Mancini questions Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, right, a risk manager with the RCMP, as commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, chair, and Kim Stanton, left to right, observe on Wednesday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

He testified he shared information he felt was important with the command team and left decisions such as bringing in extra officers and whether to issue a media release up to them since he didn’t know what other factors and intelligence they had to take into account.

One of Briers’s tasks was to bring Mounties from other areas to set up road blocks and check points to try to contain the gunman based on his last known location. That involved calling supervisors in other parts of the province and figuring out positioning. 

“This is a very big area so I knew I needed more people,” he testified. “It was multitasking to the nth degree…. You’re trying to catch up to an individual that knows what they’re planning on doing and we don’t have a clue.” 

Reflections on how things went 

Briers said looking back in hindsight, he wished he had brought extra officers and someone to help him process all the information earlier. 

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said. 

Briers said the RCMP has made changes since the mass shooting to allow for a second risk manager to be called in during a major event.

The officer working out of the operations communications centre provides assistance with all complaints coming in to the RCMP and a second person could oversee if there was an unrelated emergency in another part of the province. 

RCMP officer speaks of 'regrets' that have haunted him since mass shooting
The gunman’s replica RCMP cruiser that was used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting was created with a decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus. Briers says he did not hear officers mention the vehicle had a push bar on April 19, 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

While some lawyers who represent the families of victims boycotted Wednesday’s proceedings, those who stayed asked Briers about information that fell through the cracks.

Briers said one thing that would have really helped police was to know about the gunman’s activities and behaviour in advance. He said he was troubled by the amount of information people who knew the gunman had and didn’t share until after the rampage. 

“For people to know he had a marked car and not tell anybody. That’s huge,” Briers said. 

He said he could appreciate that people close to the gunman might have been fearful, but he says during the response, police could only do so much. 

Shift started at 7 a.m.

Briers said he first learned of a situation in Portapique, N.S., when he was driving to his Sunday shift around 6 a.m.

His overnight counterpart, Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, called at that time to pass along the “Coles notes” of what happened — that multiple people were dead, several buildings were burning and that the tactical team was in the community trying to find the suspect, Gabriel Wortman, or his remains.

By dawn, 13 people in the tiny community along the Cobequid Bay had been murdered, but police had not discovered all of them and did not yet realize the shooter had escaped the night before.

That Sunday morning the gunman drove his replica cruiser to Wentworth, N.S., and killed nine more people: acquaintances and strangers he passed on the road, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer. Police didn’t realize he was on the move until a second batch of 911 calls flooded in. 

Replica cruiser ID’d during 1st hour of shift

Within half an hour of arriving, Briers requested an additional search of vehicles linked to Berkshire Broman Corp., since he heard one of the vehicles located at the gunman’s properties was registered to it. It turned out the replica cruiser was one of three decommissioned cruisers the shooter registered under the company. 

But Briers needed assistance to get that information because he didn’t have direct access to one of the two databases in the province, an issue he said he’d been raising for years.

“It wouldn’t have changed Portapique, but it’s just the more information you have, the quicker you can get it yourself,” Briers said when he spoke to staff with the Mass Casualty Commission on Nov. 18, 2021. 

RCMP officer speaks of 'regrets' that have haunted him since mass shooting
A photograph of the gunman’s replica RCMP cruiser at his Portapique warehouse, taken December 2019. Police in Halifax received photos from family members of the gunman’s spouse early on April 19. (Mass Casualty Commission)

Halifax police also contacted him about the replica cruiser after the sister of Lisa Banfield, the gunman’s spouse, showed them a photo.

Meanwhile, investigators in Great Village, N.S., were interviewing Banfield in the back of an ambulance. She shared details about the cruiser and explained her sister might be a target. 

When Briers first inquired about the cruiser at 7:29 a.m., Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, who was working out of the fire hall in Great Village, told him that tactical officers determined that the car was burned at the scene. 

But shortly before 8 a.m., the tactical team confirmed the damaged car didn’t have the “silent patrolman” — a divider between the front and back seats — or light bar linked to the fake cruiser, and passed that information on to Staff Sgt. Jeff West, who was overseeing the whole response out of the command post in the fire hall. 

Within minutes, Briers had updated Halifax police and the RCMP had sent out a notice to be on the lookout to police agencies across the province. 

Carroll is slated to testify via Zoom on Thursday. In April 2020, he was the district commander of the RCMP in Colchester County, but has since retired. 

Wednesday marked the first time hearings were held in Truro. The commission said locations are changing due to a combination of factors, including the availability of venues and the space required to comply with public health guidelines. Proceedings will return to the Halifax Convention Centre on June 1. 

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