Rapid response: The Nova Scotia active shooter incident

A highly mobile killer went on a 60-mile, 12-hour spree that ended with 18 killed, including an RCMP constable


What happened: At approximately 2230 hours on Saturday, April 18, police in Nova Scotia responded to a home in Portapique, where they found several casualties inside and outside of the home. After the violence in Portapique, the killer went mobile, shooting at seemingly random targets as he went on a 60-mile, 12-hour spree that terminated in a gas station parking lot in the city of Enfield, where he was shot by police in a gunfight.

An estimated 18 people were killed during the incident, including one Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) constable who was shot by the killer after she rammed his vehicle. Many more were wounded, including another RCMP constable (no details at press time).

While we only have access to preliminary information, there are already some important observations we can make about the active shooter incident in Nova Scotia, to include the following:

Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers surround a suspect at a gas station in Enfield, Nova Scotia. (Photo/AP)
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers surround a suspect at a gas station in Enfield, Nova Scotia. (Photo/AP)

Highly mobile killers

The killer in the Nova Scotia murders apparently went mobile right after the killings in Portapique. From the information available, he traveled 15 miles east to Debert in the early morning hours, then 10 miles east to Central Onslow, then another 40 miles south to Enfield, committing murders along the way.

We’ve seen this kind of activity before, in events like the August 2019 killings in Midland and Odessa, Texas. When killers go mobile, it is incredibly difficult for law enforcement to locate and stop them, particularly because valuable resources are drained away from the pursuit to deal with the confusion and carnage left behind in the wake of the killer. Every crime scene along the way saps resources the police want to commit to pursuing the killer and stopping the violence.

In cases like this, the most important thing for the police to focus on is clear communications. The police need to warn nearby residents of the threat and process valuable information received from the public about the current location and activities of the killer. They also need to communicate and coordinate effectively with officers from nearby beats or jurisdictions, to effectively marshal their forces and intercept the killer.

The time to develop these capabilities is in advance of a crisis. Agencies should ensure they have a robust mutual aid plan, compatible radio systems that allow direct communications between individual officers of allied agencies (instead of having to route interagency communications through dispatch, which can introduce error and delay), and a comprehensive ability to transmit, receive and process information between themselves and the public. This latter capability includes a fully staffed and technically savvy social media function.

Students of “the craft”

While some of these rapid mass murders [1] are spontaneous events that are carried out with little planning, a more troublesome subset of these crimes are executed by people who have planned them in advance and studied prior incidents to determine which tactics, equipment and techniques will improve their chances to achieve their deadly goals.

While some police officials may be quick to dismiss these killers as mere “copycats” when they borrow elements from prior attacks, we need to recognize them for what they are – serious students of “the craft” of rapid mass murder.

We’ve seen this kind of behavior many times before, most recently in the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio attack, in which the killer mimicked the behavior of the El Paso, Texas Walmart killer just hours before, by wearing ear protection. It’s possible that the El Paso killer was, in turn, influenced by the previous May 2019 attack in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in which the killer used a suppressor.

In the present Nova Scotia attacks, it appears the killer did his homework and incorporated several established tactics into his scheme. Besides taking his crimes on the road as a highly-mobile killer, the suspect in Nova Scotia seems to have created several diversions along the way, by setting fire to several homes and vehicles before moving on. This tactic is a common element in terrorist and active shooter attacks, and one we’ve seen before in events as diverse as the 1973 sniper attack in New Orleans, LA, and the November 2008 complex, coordinated attack (CCA) in Mumbai, India.

The Nova Scotia killer also appears to have disguised himself as a police officer, complete with uniform and marked patrol vehicle, during a portion of his crime spree. He reportedly used the camouflage to pull over at least one vehicle and kill the occupants, and later stole the real police vehicle belonging to the constable he had just executed. We’ve seen this highly problematic tactic used in many attacks before, including the infamous February 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the July 2011 active shooter attack on Utoya Island, Norway, and it’s a tough one to counter.

Our enemy is learning from prior mistakes and successes and is getting smarter. We need to pay attention to this trend as law enforcement and ask if we’re doing the same. Are we actively studying past incidents to predict the tactics that will be used by future attackers? Are we changing our tactics, techniques and procedures to be ready for these predictable threats? Are we analyzing our failures to identify necessary changes in our tactics and methods?

If not, we need to get busy. Our enemy is doing his homework, and we need to do ours if we’re going to defeat him.

Gun control doesn’t work

In a politically charged environment, where some law enforcement officials actively promote gun control as a “solution” to violent crime and believe that restricting the law-abiding public’s access to firearms will increase public safety, the Nova Scotia attack reminds us that gun control laws don’t stop murderers.

In a reaction to the 1989 killings of 14 people by an active shooter at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college, Canada imposed comprehensive controls on the purchase, ownership and use of firearms. As part of this, Canada implemented mandatory licensing, registration and magazine capacity limits, established strict storage and transportation requirements, and established entirely new classes of restricted arms which could no longer be possessed by the citizenry, or could only be possessed within a strict regulatory framework that placed significant limits on how the arms could be stored, transported and used (including licensing requirements, and a requirement to obtain police authorization for transport).

The Firearms Act of 1995 didn’t deliver on the promise of improved safety, however. Canada continued to suffer mass killings like the March 2005 Mayerthorpe attack which killed four RCMP constables, the June 2014 Moncton attack which killed three RCMP constables and injured two, the October 2014 attack in Parliament Hill, Ottawa, which killed one soldier, injured a constable, and injured two citizens, or the December 2014 Edmonton shooting in which eight people were killed.

The Nova Scotia attack is the latest reminder that gun control doesn’t stop murder. The next generation of active shooter response demands more attention to site surveys and threat assessments, physical security measures, lockdown and barricade protocols, casualty care, public venue security and enhanced training that empowers the public to be their own first responders. There’s plenty of work to be done in these areas.

resource management

The Nova Scotia attack came at a challenging time for Canadian law enforcement, who were already stretched thin as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and response. In early reporting on this incident, Canadian authorities speculated that these increased demands may have initially hampered their response.

Presently, there is no indication that this is true, but the issue does serve as a powerful reminder that “normal” police activity never ceases, even in the middle of a crisis. Calls for service continue, and there’s nothing to prevent another crisis from rearing its head while you’re dealing with the first.

In a large-scale event like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to become focused on that single problem to the exclusion of others, but we have to remember that it’s essential to preserve capacity for dealing with other challenges when they arise. This is especially true when we consider events like terror attacks or mass shootings that could turn out to be just the first stage of a more complex, coordinated attack that will demand additional resources.

The Nova Scotia attack encourages us to consider how we respond to police emergencies. During a major event like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to establish protocols that hold some of your force in reserve. Don’t flood a hot scene with every unit on patrol. Establish command and control early, to prevent an uncontrollable flood of self-directed responders. Disburse resources appropriately to provide the best coverage and eliminate problematic concentrations. Plan for reserve forces in advance of large events, and keep your mutual aid processes fresh and exercised.

Managing your limited resources is a vital part of policing, so make sure to preserve your ace in the hole, and be ready for what’s coming next.

Conclusion

We’ll certainly learn more about the details of this event in the days to come, and will be able to identify more lessons. In the meantime, we’ve already got plenty of actionable items to work on.

We salute the members of the RCMP and other agencies who bravely responded to this murderous assault, and express our great sadness at the loss of Constable Heidi Stevenson, who died trying to stop the killer. We will pray for her, her family and her fellow constables, as well as for the constable who was injured in this attack.

God bless you all and stay safe out there.

Footnote

1. Retired police officer and trainer Ron Borsch advocates for the use of the term Rapid Mass Murder (RMM) rather than “active shooter,” where RMM is defined as four or more people being killed in less than 20 minutes in a public location. “Active shooter is NOT interchangeable with active killer. By itself, the active killer term denotes both a crime and includes murder by ANY means (even firearms),” writes Borsch. “Our protocol definition of an active killer is: “One who attempts or commits Rapid Mass Murder.”

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