Moncton Review: What more can be done?

The RCMP has just released its update on the internal review that was launched following the shooting of five officers in Moncton by a single offender in June 2014. The review focused on both operational and systemic issues which was, of course, appropriate given the circumstances. It provides specific details on progress achieved but like the original Report, it is largely silent on preventive policy issues which are clearly relevant.

This issue was raised in the immediate aftermath of the shootings when the mental status of the killer was raised including by his own father. The Montreal Gazette ran a story where the accused’s father was interviewed about his son’s mental disorder and how they were supposedly unable to get police assistance. The father’s original quote was:

“We even tried to get the police involved but they said they couldn’t do anything about it and that their hands were tied,”

This assertion was noteworthy as it appeared that s.117.04 of the Criminal Code which authorizes firearms seizure on defined preventive grounds without the pre-condition of a criminal offence being committed had not been considered.

The reporter ultimately re-interviewed the father and learned that, contrary to the original claim, the family hadn’t actually contacted the police but instead supposedly asked an unnamed ex police officer friend who gave them the ‘nothing can be done’ advice. That same suggestion of police incapability to act in cases of mental illness was, however, also articulated by a number of commentators including former police officers.

Dealing with persons with mental issues is a reality of police work in Canada today. As such, maximizing police awareness of relevant information and the availability of any and all preventive tools are issues that merit further examination. This is true whether it’s done through the RCMP internal review, a third party incident review or a general issue analysis undertaken by other police services throughout Canada.

Accordingly, it is suggested that the following actions also be considered in addition to what the RCMP are now doing:

1. Ensure officer awareness of preventive tools

This should include police service and RCMP wide detachment/office briefings including establishing defined procedures for warrantless seizures and for obtaining warrants where appropriate. Literally, photocopying s. 117.04 of the Criminal Code and posting it in the coffee room would be a good way to start.  

2. Review applicable Provincial Privacy and Mental Health legislation to identify and ensure appropriate information sharing            

This is critically important to ensure that all existing information sharing authorizations are utilized especially in circumstances where mental health issues are identified. All too frequently, generic ‘privacy’ restrictions are cited to justify non sharing of relevant information even though public safety and law enforcement exceptions exist within the legislation. It is also possible that this kind of a review will identify any defects in governing legislation and a potential model for national implementation. 

3. Confirmation of investigative authority                   

In today’s ‘social media’ world, individuals such as the person charged in the Moncton shootings frequently provide relevant information about themselves, their motivations and even insights into their future intentions on the various internet based sites. Because such information is voluntarily made publicly available by individuals, there should be virtually no judicial authorization restrictions (warrants) required but this is something that should be confirmed so as to be fully prepared to justify any seizure made under s. 117.04.

4. Coordination of community outreach efforts

Given the growing interaction between police and community based organizations, including those with mental health and person at risk groups, it is advisable to ensure that they too are aware of the importance of the police receiving relevant information in a timely fashion. Such groups may be able to help encourage family or friends of persons that pose identifiable risk of harm and who possess firearms to contact police to ascertain if preventive seizures are possible.

The danger inherent in the performance of police duties is not something that is either totally predictable or preventable. That’s just reality. Having said that, employing targeted strategies to maximize police awareness of relevant information and the availability of potentially preventive measures are worthwhile tools that merit ongoing consideration.

Finally, conducting the analysis suggested may also identify institutional or bureaucratic barriers to police receiving relevant information in a timely manner as well as defects in legislation that need to be corrected. Having those insights are critical as the best way to get the right answers is to ask the right questions.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor and Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association who has also served as a policy advisor to both the Ontario and Federal Governments.