RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testified Thursday that arming Mounties with high-powered carbine rifles raised concerns for him over the possible militarization of the force and needed to be done carefully.
Paulson took the stand at the force’s Labour Code trial in Moncton, N.B., and said he worried the weapons could create tension between the public and officers.
While members needed to be properly equipped, the C8 carbine had to be rolled out responsibly, he said.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” he said.
“We have seen situations in the U.S. and some in Canada where this can distance the public from the police.”
The national force faces four charges stemming from Justin Bourque’s 2014 shooting rampage that left three officers dead and two injured in Moncton. The RCMP is accused of failing to provide the appropriate equipment and training in an active-shooter event.
READ MORE: RCMP Commissioner to take stand at force’s labour trial in New Brunswick
Carbine rifles were not available to general duty officers during Bourque’s shooting spree on June 4, 2014, and numerous witnesses have testified they could have made a difference.
The RCMP approved the C8 carbines in September 2011, but the rollout took time.
Constables Fabrice Gevaudan, Dave Ross and Doug Larche were killed, while constables Eric Dubois and Darlene Goguen were wounded when Bourque targeted police officers in hopes of sparking an anti-government rebellion.
Paulson did not comment as he entered courthouse, “out of respect for the court.”
— Ross Lord (@rlordglobal) June 15, 2017
Paulson, who is due to retire at the end of this month after 32 years in the force, wore a black suit Thursday rather than his uniform.
The small courtroom was only about half full. Among those watching Paulson’s testimony was one of the fallen officers’ wives, Nadine Larche, and Terry McKee of the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada.
Paulson testified that he was involved in the initial discussions about the introduction of carbines in the RCMP. He said he was critical of a report on carbines prepared by Carleton professor Darryl Davies, claiming it lacked appropriate analysis.
READ MORE: RCMP labour trial hears that no one took command during Moncton shooting rampage
Paulson says he learned of the Moncton shootings while on a flight to Vancouver and had a conference call with officials in New Brunswick. He said he was satisfied they were getting the support they needed. He flew to Moncton the day after Bourque was captured.
Paulson said he quickly enlisted Alphonse MacNeil to do an independent report on the shootings and identify any shortcomings in the force as well as take measures to prevent anything like that from happening again. Paulson says he told MacNeil there were no limits on what he could review.
“It’s a completely devastating set of facts our officers were asked to respond to,” he said. “They responded heroically and without fail.”
In testifying at the Labour Code trial in May, MacNeil noted that the initial response to reports of a camouflage-wearing man wielding firearms in Moncton’s north end was appropriate, with members setting up a perimeter.
But operations then started to break down, he said.
READ MORE: Number of elements to consider before arming officers with carbines, RCMP labour trial hears
He said there was no “lethal force overwatch” during the first encounter with Bourque, meaning no one was in a position to take him down when he turned his weapon on police. MacNeil also said there was a lack of communication, noting that no one went on the radio to clearly indicate what had happened to Gevaudan.
MacNeil’s 2015 report made 64 recommendations and concluded that carbines could have made a difference in the incident.
He told the court the lack of carbines was a major factor in police tactics during the incident. When shots were fired, the perimeter was abandoned because the short range of officers’ duty pistols required them to move closer to the suspect.
Not opposed to more might, but wants to think through consequences. “It can have an impact on quality of life.”
— Ross Lord (@rlordglobal) June 15, 2017
Paulson said Thursday there was no way to foresee an active outdoor shooter event.
He was asked by the defence if trainers should have foreseen it and trained officers for it. Paulson said no, but added that elements of the training were being done.
He said the MacNeil report accelerated what they were already planning to do with the rollout of carbines, but said the previous rollout was not too slow.
He said the RCMP needs to demonstrate the ability to use force, but it is not central to its presence.
“We have tanks, drones and machine guns, but are we going to a shoplifter with a carbine?” he said.
He said it doesn’t make sense to always be trying to match the weapons used by criminals. He said it makes sense to focus on prevention.
Bourque was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 75 years after pleading guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.
Closing arguments are expected early next month, and provincial court Judge Leslie Jackson has already told lawyers he won’t render a quick decision.
Ross Lord, Global National’s Atlantic correspondent, will be live-blogging the trial.
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