BY IAN PATTISON

RCMP in Nova Scotia face mounting public anger over the lack of an emergency alert to a vicious gunman roaming communities last weekend. It is a far different type of anger than police in Ontario experienced over emergency alerts last year and points to the lack of standards for these types of events.

On all five occasions that Amber Alerts were issued in Ontario in 2019, police forces had to plead with the public to stop flooding 911 operators with complaints about the broadcasts, some of which take place in the middle of the night.

The federally mandated emergency broadcasts go out to wireless devices and TV sets across this 1,100-km-wide province every time police issue an alert concerning a missing child believed to be in imminent danger. Hundreds of Nova Scotians were in imminent danger for 13 hours last weekend but an emergency alert was never issued. Instead, RCMP chose to advise residents about danger on Twitter.

The Mounties have 92,000 Twitter followers in Nova Scotia which has a population of 950,000. So one in 10 people at most would have received tweets from the Mounties.

Portapique and nearby communities are plagued by spotty internet service -- something that many in Northwestern Ontario can identify with -- and are heavily populated with seniors who might not use Twitter. So many, if not most residents had no idea that imminent, lethal danger was lurking just outside their homes.

The province's Emergency Management Office reached out several times to the RCMP as the scope of the rampage emerged on Twitter but the messages were not answered. By the time the Mounties were finally preparing the wording of an alert, officers had found and killed Canada’s worst mass killer as he headed for Nova Scotia’s capital city, Halifax.

The RCMP received its first 911 firearms call at 10:26 p.m., Saturday. On arrival in Portapique they encountered a motorist who said he had been shot by a passing motorist who appeared to be driving a police vehicle. Officers soon located several people lying in the roadway as well as several structure fires. A total of 13 bodies would be found at seven locations.

This would have been the time to order an emergency alert, but for reasons that remain unknown none was issued. Murder and mayhem continued overnight among unsuspecting residents.

Police soon learned the gunman’s identity and found his home, garages and vehicles engulfed in flames. They learned he owned a pistol and long guns and was known to own several lookalike police vehicles. No alert.

Police were dealing with an active-shooter and a manhunt fanned out across the central part of the province lasting almost 13 hours. Yet the public remained largely in the dark.

This was a chaotic, unprecedented situation unlike anything that officers on the ground had ever seen. But it is precisely the training that emergency personnel receive that we count on for calm guidance in crises. The command and control structure that is in place in emergency situations provides for important and timely public alerts. It is impossible to excuse the fact that this did not happen in northern Nova Scotia that night.

At a news conference Friday, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said police thought they had the suspect contained inside a 4 sq. km. perimeter and surmised this is why the incident commander did not issue a public alert. Given all that police had encountered to this point, an alert was clearly warranted. A gunman was at large.

Police did not realize the suspect had left the area until 8:02 Sunday morning. That is almost certainly because the shooter was able to drive away undetected in a near-perfect mockup of an RCMP vehicle and wearing a genuine Mountie uniform.

By this time an emergency alert would have been counterproductive since residents seeing any RCMP vehicle would have assumed it might be the killer. The time for the alert was 9 ½ hours earlier when he was stalking people he knew and many who were simply in the wrong place.

Gabriel Wortman, identified as the man responsible for this massacre, was said by friends to be a fanatical collector of RCMP paraphernalia, including Ford Taurus police cars that he would buy at auction, then apply paint and decals.

His former employer said Wortman showed him photos of a cruiser he had replicated and that police had told him to keep it on a trailer. So police were already aware that someone -- with a record of violence -- owned a replica of their cruisers and apparently this is not illegal.

As for fitting it out, you can buy a lookalike red, white and blue police roof strobe light on eBay right now for $183. Police uniforms are common items in surplus stores though in this case an accomplice may have helped Wortman acquire an RCMP uniform with its distinctive yellow stripes.

Police learned about the mock police car and its driver between 7 and 8 a.m., Sunday, from his ex-girlfriend whom he had assaulted before she escaped into the woods and hid until emerging at daylight to call 911. By this time Wortman was driving another car which police encountered by chance at a gas station near Halifax later that morning where they confronted and shot him dead.

An emergency alert could have saved lives. Any number of victims, startled by the loud buzzing on their phones or TVs, would have known to lock their doors, turn out their lights and hide. Instead, Wortman moved freely from house to house in a number of rural communities, killing and burning with abandon as police scrambled to catch up to him.

What kind of a person would do this? By most accounts this was a nice guy, but a Portapique neighbour said there were clues. While socializing with Wortman and his girlfriend, the neighbour said there were often flashes of angry jealousy.

Court records confirm that Wortman was ordered to receive counselling for anger management after assaulting a man in Halifax in 2001. He was granted a conditional discharge and prohibited from owning or possessing a weapon or ammunition.

RCMP say that Wortman used a handgun and several long guns during his killing spree and are trying to determine how he acquired them.

For now we are left to ponder the horror of 16 crime scenes spread over 90 kilometres. And we are left to wonder how much of that could have been prevented if police had opted to use the public alert system that was a phone call away from being activated.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs. 

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