Protecting FrontLine Officers

15 March 2015

When four Alberta Mounties were gunned down on a farm just outside the small town of Mayerthorpe in March 2005, it sent shock waves through the RCMP. A fatalities inquiry in 2011 concluded that there was no way such an event could have been foreseen. A decade later, however, some observers say the RCMP still haven’t learned the lessons of Mayerthorpe – even after the similar tragedy in Moncton in June of 2014. These two tragic incidents have become intertwined, both indicative of the inertia that exists when it comes to making changes within the RCMP.

Assistant Chief Judge Daniel R. Pahl, who conducted the Mayerthorpe inquiry, recommended arming frontline members with the Colt C8 patrol carbine to protect themselves against the likes of the shooter who ambushed the Mounties with a high-powered rifle. The force had, in fact, already begun the process of procuring carbines at the time of the inquiry. Yet more than three years later, by the summer of 2014, J Division was only just carrying out its first carbine training course, and none of the weapons were available to Moncton officers on June 4 as a disturbed young man, armed for guerrilla warfare, walked briskly through a Moncton suburb shooting at police. Shockingly, none of the responding officers put on their Hard Body Armour (HBA), and only one brought a shotgun – the others had their 9-mm handguns.

In his report on the Moncton incident, retired assistant commissioner Alphonse MacNeil said the RCMP had taken “far too long” in rolling out the carbines. Released in January 2015, the report noted several instances where officers would have had opportunities to shoot the gunman if they’d had carbines. “This firearm was approved specifically to address this type of call,” he wrote, adding that there were “frontline members of the RCMP who still do not have training and access to the carbine” – despite recommendations after Mayerthorpe.

It appears, however, that this may not change anytime soon. Although the RCMP have expedited the carbine roll-out (one of the 64 recommendations in MacNeil’s report) there is still no plan for all detachments to carry the weapons. Instead, the carbines are being distributed by the force’s regional divisions based on risk assessments in each detachment area. Many observers argue that Moncton would likely have been assessed as a low-risk area prior to the pivotal moment when the city captured headlines world-wide. Is taxpayer money being wasted on number crunchers creating risk charts rather than procuring the weapons for frontline officers at each detachment as a precaution?

Rob Creasser, of the Mounted Police Professional Association, says this is yet another example of senior management’s failure to understand the needs of frontline members in a world that is increasingly dangerous for police. “The RCMP are very slow learners,” he told FrontLine, adding: “Unfortunately, that can have tragic outcomes.”

In 2006, the force began looking into improving their weapons. In 2009, they contracted Carleton University criminologist Darryl Davies to do a feasibility study on adopting the carbine. Davies’ report, completed in 2010, recommended a centrally-run carbine program, with every RCMP member receiving a carbine regardless of where they’re policing. The overwhelming majority of Mounties whom Davies had surveyed said all uniformed officers should have one. Moreover, other Canadian police services were already using it, including the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the Calgary police service. However, then-assistant commissioner Bob Paulson found the report inadequate, at least in part because Davies had relied on American studies of the carbine, and so, the report was shelved. It wasn’t until the fall of 2012 that the RCMP finally signed a contract for its first batch of carbines.

Creasser, a retired RCMP officer, believes Paulson was overly picky about Davies’ report, and says this slowed down the process unnecessarily. “It’s kind of the old RCMP way of doing things; if somebody’s already done something and using equipment, usually that’s not good enough. We have to do our own studies, we have to reinvent the wheel, we have to satisfy ourselves. It’s not good enough that other police agencies are already using this carbine and have been for some time. I think that’s a mindset that needs to change.”

Although the MacNeil report doesn’t address the culture of the force’s top management, it does call for a “thorough analysis” of the procurement process for frontline equipment. In its response to the report, the RCMP said that a senior officer from Contract and Aboriginal Policing will lead officer safety initiatives, and “milestones will be set to ensure a specific percentage of members in each division are equipped within a certain period of time.”

Davies says MacNeil’s report is encouraging, but he believes the risk-assessment approach to the roll-out needs to change. “Using their current criteria, Mayerthorpe would most likely have been defined as a non-risk policing detachment, and yet four Mounties were shot dead in this community,” he said, adding that James Roszko, although well known to police, was not deemed a high risk to officers before the shooting.

A former commander of the Mayerthorpe detachment takes a somewhat more sympathetic view of the slow carbine roll-out. “I can understand to a degree why it took so long,” says Kim Connell, who retired in 2001. “It’s a huge cost and trying to get taxpayers’ money to do it.” He adds: “Giving high-powered guns to policemen is a psychological thing within the force, too; nobody wants to do that.”

Indeed, reservations about arming the police with military-style assault rifles are understandable – especially given that Canadians have traditionally perceived their iconic national force as one of cool-headed diplomacy. But wrongdoers today are increasingly better-armed and more inclined to shoot, and many other police forces have been quicker to adjust to this new reality. Davies tried to address potential concerns about the militarization of the police in his report, which included a strategy for educating the public about the rationale behind acquiring carbines. As for cost, Davies says the RCMP should make the case to the federal government that they need more funds if they can’t afford the weapons for all detachments. “The question is, what price do you put on an RCMP officer in this country?” he said.

Police keep watch on a house as they search for a heavily armed gunman following the shooting of three Mounties in Moncton, N.B., on June 5, 2014. 

It appears that money might have been saved by purchasing a cheaper carbine. The RCMP opted for a top-of-the-line version, which comes to about $4,500 including all the accessories, the carrying case and the mount for police vehicles. Other police forces have purchased cheaper versions. The OPP, for instance, chose one that was about 60 percent of that cost, according to Creasser.

Inadequate equipment was far from the only problem identified in MacNeil’s 180-page report on the Moncton incident; he also underlined, among other things, shortcomings in training. When the initial call came in – describing a male in camouflage, carrying two long guns and bullets – no shotguns or rifles were deployed. Only afterwards did one member take a shotgun. Additionally, although the detachment had received its HBA in 2013 (as per one of the Mayerthorpe recommendations), it is interesting to note that some officers had never removed the equipment from its original packaging – they were still unopened in the police car trunks. None of the responding officers in Moncton put on their body armour during this chaotic incident.

Several of MacNeil’s recommendations address this, including giving all members a briefing on deployment of the HBA; and having qualified members ensure that available long-barreled weapons are in their vehicle while on duty. The report also makes recommendations for improving officer safety skills and training; these include having trainers and supervisors consider how to mitigate the effect of cognitive biases that can undermine training.

Creasser says that is something most police officers will relate to. “Around Halloween time, we used to get lots of complaints of what sounded like shots fired, but of course it was fire crackers. And you kind of let your guard down.” Calls of a suspicious male with a firearm were common in Moncton, according to MacNeil’s report.

“Unfortunately, complacency does creep into it,” Creasser acknowledges. He barely escaped death in 1991 when a man fired a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle at him during a traffic stop. After the fact, he recognized that he had made several critical mistakes and he says it was pure luck, not his training, that saved him. However, with that sort of danger becoming increasingly common, Creasser says police are becoming more conscious of safety. “Now all we have to do is have the money and the training in place to give us the tools to properly do our jobs, and I’m hoping it won’t take embarrassing the federal government or our managers to get that done.”

The RCMP now has over 2,200 patrol carbines for its 18,988 regular members. “Additional carbines will continue to be acquired by RCMP Divisions as per their individual patrol carbine acquisition strategies and in consultation with our contract partners,” RCMP spokesman Sgt. Greg Cox said in March 2015. There have been 6,000 sets of hard body armour distributed across the country, with another 1,600 to arrive early in the summer.

Annual “C” Division (RCMP) Public Order Unit training in Valcartier. (Photo: Christel Pesant-Legault / 2013)

It’s a start, but there is a long way to go to properly protect the frontline officers that spring into action when public safety is at stake.

Kevin Hampson is a journalist and freelance writer based in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. He earned a BA in history and political science from McGill University.
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