A risk or a benefit? N.S. mass shooting inquiry scrutinizes police items circulating in public

A risk or a benefit? N.S. mass shooting inquiry scrutinizes police items circulating in public

by Sue Jones
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The Mass Casualty Commission heard various perspectives Wednesday from collectors, academics, lawyers and former officers on police impersonation and paraphernalia. 

Canada Mounties Rcmp

Royal Canadian Mounted Police cadets await badge presentations at a graduation ceremony at the RCMP Academy, Depot Division in Regina on June 5, 2017. (Valerie Zink/Reuters)

The commission leading the public inquiry into Nova Scotia’s mass shooting has heard a conversation on the risks and benefits of having police items circulating in public.

The Mass Casualty Commission is leading the inquiry into the 2020 massacre where 22 people were killed by a gunman wearing parts of a Mountie uniform and driving a replica RCMP cruiser.

Wednesday’s discussion involved various perspectives from collectors, academics, lawyers and former officers on police impersonation and paraphernalia. 

Phil Bailey, who retired after a career with the Edmonton police, said he has hundreds of police hats, badges and coins from police services across the country.

“It’s the pride in the uniform — some of the badges that have been provided to me by families, it’s because they wanted the symbol of what their family went through to be recognized,” Bailey said.

He added that collections like his preserve history that might be otherwise lost, and have helped him form friendships and connections with officers and civilians around the country.

Useful in emergencies, says retired Mountie

Brian Carter, a retired RCMP officer and past president of the RCMP Veterans’ Association in Nova Scotia, said carrying his badge and ID that identify him as a retired Mountie has helped when he’s come across a car crash or saw a fight happening and stepped in.

But Julia Cecchetto, the former police chief in Kentville, N.S., who also served with the Halifax Regional Police for decades, said she doesn’t think retired officers of any service should have these items.

“Whether it says retired on it or not, the public does not see that. They see a shiny badge,” Cecchetto said. 

Julia Cecchetto

Julia Cecchetto, a retired police chief in Kentville, N.S., speaks during a Mass Casualty Commission roundtable on police paraphernalia and impersonation on April 27, 2022, in Halifax. (CBC)

Cecchetto also she approves of Nova Scotia’s recent trend of having all retired badges encased in a “very large chunk” of plastic so they can’t be used.

While all three officers said it was important to keep their dress uniforms so they could wear them for memorial services like Remembrance Day or police funerals, another option was brought forward.

The inquiry heard there are veteran blazers that vary slightly in style from service to service, but often are very expensive. Cecchetto said she would be open to wearing the blazer instead of the dress uniform upon retirement if police agencies footed the bill.

As a former Mountie, Carter said he and most RCMP veterans take special pride in keeping their red serge after retirement because they consider the uniform a symbol of Canadian pride and one that is recognized all over the world.

Rcmp Boot And Holster

Brian MacDonald discovered items later confirmed to have been left by the gunman behind his welding shop in Debert, N.S., including RCMP-issue boots from the gunman’s uncle and a holster. (Mass Casualty Commission)

But Montreal lawyer Meg Daniel said for many Indigenous people, the RCMP is a symbol of oppression and trauma. She said the force had a role in upholding residential schools, and was formed to track and subjugate Indigenous communities. 

The inquiry heard that most cases of impersonation in Canada within the last 25 years have not involved real police paraphernalia; someone confidently claiming to be an officer was often enough.

Gunman got items online or from family

Earlier this week, the inquiry heard more about how the gunman in the Nova Scotia mass shooting created the replica cruiser from a decommissioned RCMP Ford Taurus and gathered other police paraphernalia like uniforms and equipment from either relatives or online.

Carter said it would be “impossible” to prevent police impersonation in Canada, so the remaining option is to cut down the risk as much as possible.

Cruiser Gunman Portapique

A photo of the gunman’s decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus that he made into a replica cruiser and used during the mass shooting on April 18-19, 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

“So will taking, for example, the ceremonial uniform of the RCMP away from retired members — will that have any effect on the risk? You could argue … no, because people can make the uniform,” Carter said.

But Daniel and Cecchetto both said as mothers, if they lost children in an incident like the mass shooting, no benefits or arguments would outweigh the risks.

“The actual harm is so great, and we know that the harms are more likely to be visited on those people who don’t enjoy any of the advantages of those symbols,” said Daniel.

Another strategy would be to have members of the public question the credentials of police when they encounter an officer, Cecchetto said, and call the officer’s detachment to make sure they’re legitimate.

Officers should be trained from the get-go to expect this, she added, and any officers who take offence would be dealt with internally.

Federal government waiting for commission findings

With a new provincial law coming into effect May 12, Nova Scotia will be the only province with legislation making it illegal to possess police gear or badges without authorization.

Commissioners said they will take the entire discussion into consideration as they work toward their final report.

A spokesperson for the federal Justice Department said in an email Wednesday the Criminal Code does not prohibit the sale or possession of police equipment, but it is a crime to use any items to impersonate an officer.

Geneviève Groulx said the federal government is not considering any changes to the law. She added the government “looks forward to reviewing the commission’s findings.”

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