News / Canada

High River ‘gun grab’ overshadowed aid effort, RCMP watchdog says

OTTAWA—A new watchdog report says the RCMP’s forced home entries and gun seizures during the 2013 flood in High River, Alberta were partially authorized by law but slams the Mounties for failing to report the weapon seizures to a court or to the public.

The inquiry by the newly renamed Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP determined the RCMP’s actions during the June 2013 flood were beset by failures of leadership and communications that overshadowed the aid effort and turned the rescue operation into a “gun grab” story.

The report is a detailed chronicling of how not to respond to a natural disaster. It makes 10 recommendations on how to avoid a repeat of the mistakes.

And it will be seen by many as vindication of the anger voiced by citizens and Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the gun seizures.

After a review that took more than a year-and-a-half, commission chair Ian McPhail and his investigators concluded the Mounties were mostly justified in forcing their way into flooded High River homes in search of stranded residents, and in seizing more than 600 unsecured guns set out of the rising water’s way.

The report says Alberta’s Emergency Measures Act designates the town as a legal authority, and High River’s emergency operations committee had issued a legal evacuation order that instructed the RCMP to forcibly enter homes to look for stranded residents. The RCMP, under Canada’s common law and criminal code, for the most part acted legally when they seized hundreds of unsecured guns “in plain view,” says the report.

But McPhail came down hard on the force for failing to report the weapon seizures to a justice of the peace, a simple act that would have rendered the seizures entirely lawful, provided judicial oversight and accountability and may have calmed residents’ — and the prime minister’s — anger.

“Clear policy and supervisory direction could have alleviated public concerns about RCMP members acting arbitrarily,” the report says.

McPhail himself said much of the blame lies at the feet of Alberta’s “K” Division leadership, however his recommendations urge clearer policies, communications and training changes across the board.

The report accepts that the RCMP’s early entries into homes were justified — to save people, look for pets, retrieve medications and inspect homes for unsafe conditions, such as broken gas lines or live electrical wires. Indeed, the report notes that between 28 and 38 stranded residents were rescued during a flood that killed three people.

However it concluded some entries into homes unaffected by the flood which caused “significant” damages were unreasonable. It also said secondary entries by Mounties who were later dispatched to pick up guns identified by the first responders required a warrant.

“In several cases the searches exceeded their authorized scope by expanding from a search for people or pets to a search for firearms or contraband,” the report said. In one case, the Mounties seized marijuana, unsecured firearms and searched a safe containing $10,000 for which they found a key and ammunition.

But the report said a lack of detailed records or notes kept by the RCMP about the searches made it difficult to say whether it went beyond a few cases.

Residents’ frustrations boiled over at the barricades several days after the evacuation when they learned the RCMP had forcibly entered and seized guns that people had hastily scooped out of their basements, and put up on mantelpieces, beds or closet shelves to keep out of the rising floodwaters.

Prime Minister Harper’s spokesman Carl Vallée told reporters: “We expect that any firearms taken will be returned to their owners as soon as possible. We believe the RCMP should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property.”

Not long afterward, McPhail initiated his own review of the RCMP actions.

In an interview about the report released Thursday, McPhail told the Star he was surprised to learn the RCMP did not have a set game plan — with clear policies outlining the legal authorizations needed, and communications scenarios — for disaster situations such as this.

“They seemed to be unaware that when the guns are seized . . . you have to make a return to a justice so that there’s judicial oversight. That was troubling that nobody directed their mind to that issue,” he said.

And he was critical of the RCMP for poor public communications during the crisis. It was disorganized, ad hoc, defensive, reactive and aggravated the public’s unease by adding unnecessary uncertainty to their plight.

He said the RCMP internally had already decided it would not charge people for unsafe firearms storage and would return weapons once people proved ownership but because the procedures for the returns were not yet finalized, “operational commanders insisted on keeping some of the basic information out of the public domain.”

Word leaked out on social media days later as frustrated residents clamoured to get back to their homes.

Things got worse when by the time the firearms story gained national attention. National RCMP headquarters in Ottawa ordered all media calls routed through its central office, leading to “massive frustration” among local media, the report found.

“They couldn’t get any kind of answer from National on anything . . . or they would get an answer that simply did not meet their needs in any way, shape or form,” reported Sgt. Patricia Neely, who tried to stickhandle media relations in High River in the early going.

“A comprehensive communications plan is essential to an organization’s ability to effectively manage a crisis,” the report says.

Effective crisis communications “should be proactive, which means disseminating relevant information within a context that supports the organization’s mandate and promotes the merits of its decisions (i.e. garners support and confidence from the very people they are attempting to serve). A reactive approach often results in an issue or incident being framed by interests that may be unsupportive or working in direct opposition.”

McPhail said the RCMP failed to realize that “when they went into something like this they were wearing two hats; they were wearing their responder’s hat and of course, they’re still wearing their police officer’s hat. Except that the responder’s hat is by far more significant one and it requires a different approach.”

“As a police officer doing an investigation, you’re trained to keep what you’re doing confidential, but when it comes to working as a first responder you need to involve and inform the public. It’s quite the opposite.”

McPhail further criticized a decision by some RCMP members whose own homes were inside the evacuation zone not to evacuate. Those homes and those of firefighters involved in the flood rescue operations were not forcibly entered or damaged throughout, leading the public to resent the double-standard.

“It undermines confidence,” said McPhail. “The (RCMP) members stayed in their homes because they were working shifts, it was easier to come home after a shift, have a bite to eat and go to bed but definitely created a sense of favouritism and that became recognized within a few days, and they were told to evacuate as well.”

RCMP Comm. Bob Paulson has been briefed on the report’s findings and recommendations, and is expected to respond publicly.