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Manhunt fallout: Premier calls on the RCMP to improve emergency alert protocols

HALIFAX — The premier of Nova Scotia says the RCMP must change how they alert the public to dangerous incidents following the high-profile arrest of a gunman who remained at large for 19 hours.

HALIFAX — The premier of Nova Scotia says the RCMP must change how they alert the public to dangerous incidents following the high-profile arrest of a gunman who remained at large for 19 hours.

Stephen McNeil made the comment Thursday as questions arose about why it took more than three hours on Wednesday for the Mounties to request a provincewide Alert Ready message to warn residents about a manhunt that spanned two provinces.

"The RCMP has an issue when it comes to whether or not they want to use emergency alerts," the premier said after a cabinet meeting. "They need to fix their protocol."

Provincial Justice Minister Mark Furey — a former Mountie — also weighed in, saying the RCMP must shorten the time it takes for them to prepare Alert Ready messages for distribution by the province's Emergency Management Office.

"We would like to see the times compressed as much as possible to ensure the earliest communication with the Emergency Management Office," he said Thursday, adding that the latest delay may have been caused by factors of which he is unaware.

"(The RCMP) may be better able to explain, and I hope they would explain these circumstances to the public," Furey said. "I've told them that timely and efficient communication is critical in providing public safety to Nova Scotians."

McNeil repeatedly stressed that once the EMO had received the text of the message from the RCMP at 11:35 a.m., it took only seven minutes for the agency to transmit it to TV, radio and wireless devices across the province.

Furey confirmed that municipal police officers in Amherst, N.S., found the suspect's abandoned vehicle at 8:10 a.m., which means the Mounties did not submit the text for the emergency alert until almost three-and-a-half hours later. 

RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said in a statement Thursday the police force is in an "unenviable position" of deciding when to issue alerts. He said while there is a public desire for police to issue emergency alerts, that demand comes "without understanding of public safety risk or the incident."

"This is reflected in demands for alerts to be issued sooner and even for incidents where the alert may result in greater harm to the public or police," he said.

With respect to the vehicle abandoned in Amherst, Leather noted the Amherst police opted not to issue an alert after sending a tweet about the vehicle at 9:37 a.m. The RCMP, he said, "would not have issued an alert either, despite the public and political calls for an alert." 

"Officers in both provinces were doing police work, gathering facts, following up on leads, and speaking with suspect family members and close contacts to find and arrest the suspect," he said. "All the while continuously assessing the situation from a public safety perspective."

"When we were confident a public alert would not impede his apprehension, jeopardize public or police safety, we requested an alert be issued," he added. 

Leather's statement, however, didn't provide details about why issuing an alert prior to that point would have impeded the investigation.

Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the provincial politician who represents the Amherst area for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, issued a statement Thursday saying the delay was unacceptable.

"Sadly, we know all too well in this province what the consequences can be for delays in notifying the public of immediate danger," she said, referring to the widespread criticism the RCMP faced for failing to use the Alert Ready system when a gunman disguised as a Mountie killed 22 people in April.

"What we learned today is that no progress has been made since the events of April 18-19th." 

Smith-McCrossin also alleged that the government was responsible for the delay. The premier, however, said that was inaccurate.

"The fact is that EMO … can't write a script about what is taking place on the ground in Amherst," McNeil said. "It needs (the RCMP) to do that."

The shooting suspect, who had fled from New Brunswick some time between 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday and early the next day, remained at large for almost 19 hours before he was arrested without incident by Amherst police just after noon on Wednesday.

The manhunt started near a high school in Riverview, N.B., where a man was wounded by gunfire. Police say the 35-year-old victim was approached by a man who demanded that he give him a bag he was carrying. 

The victim was taken to hospital to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries. 

The New Brunswick RCMP said 24-year-old Janson Bryan Baker of Moncton was being held in custody Thursday on an unrelated matter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7. 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press