Almost seven weeks after a gunman wearing an RCMP uniform and driving a replica cruiser went on a rampage through rural Nova Scotia and killed 22 people, Nova Scotia RCMP are reassuring the public their officers are who they say they are.
After the mass killing of April 18-19, some Nova Scotians expressed fear about encountering the RCMP, afraid the same thing might happen to them.
This fear was top of mind for a Lake Echo, N.S., woman on the evening of April 24. It was around 11 p.m. AT when she looked out her front door and saw RCMP officers and members of the Halifax Regional Police emergency response team with their guns pointed at her.
“I was very hesitant about going to the front door after what had happened [in Portapique], so once I saw a man in a police uniform, I lost my mind,” said the homeowner, whom CBC News is not naming because of safety concerns.
The woman was a victim of a swatting incident, which involves falsely reporting a serious incident in the hopes it draws a response that includes heavily armed tactical squads like a SWAT team.
The police were responding to a fake call reporting a shooting at the residence.
The woman’s neighbour was also afraid when the RCMP came to her door.
“It was terrifying. Just the buzz at my door and the person identifying themselves as an RCMP officer terrified me,” she said.
The woman subsequently confirmed the officer’s identity after calling 911.
Officers initially reported ‘some hesitancy from people’
Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said the force does not track the number of calls received from the public asking to confirm an officer’s identity, but she said officers on the road initially reported “there was some hesitancy from people” after the mass shooting.
“We do understand that people have certain feelings that have come on from those incidents in Portapique in April, but we are very good at adapting ourselves to a number of different situations,” Clarke said.
“In this case, where someone might be a little bit distrustful of us as an RCMP officer, we’re capable of handling that and are more sensitive to that, for sure.”
Clarke said now that it’s been almost seven weeks since the killings, officers are reporting less anxiety and uncertainty around their identity.
She said people often know and recognize the officers in their area because of their involvement in that community.
“They’re your coaches. They’re helping with Scouts, they’re helping with hockey. We’re usually fairly heavily involved in the community, so people know us,” Clarke said.
She noted some officers currently working in communities may not be familiar to the people who live there because they have been brought in from other provinces to cover for regular officers who are part of the shooting investigation.
Regular officers will return to community
“Once things settle down a little bit more and we get back on the road, people are going to recognize our RCMP officers again,” she said.
Clarke said people who still have fears should consider the circumstances surrounding their interactions with RCMP.
“If you were speeding or talking on your phone, you can expect the police will probably find you and do a traffic stop. If you weren’t doing anything wrong, maybe you have a tail light or headlight out that you don’t know about,” she said.
Public can ask for ID
Clarke said people can ask RCMP officers for identification, but they may not produce it immediately.
“If the circumstances make it safe and reasonable to do so, the officer will provide that identification. In a situation such as a traffic stop, you may ask to see an officer’s badge and ID card,” she said.
She said both the badge and ID card will show the same regimental number and the ID card will have a photo.
RCMP officers are required to surrender their badge and ID when they retire or leave the force, although Clarke said retired officers can request to have their badge returned. When that happens, the badge is encased in acrylic.
Clarke said RCMP will be using a social media campaign to help restore public trust.
‘Normal’ to be fearful, psychologist says
Halifax psychologist Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley said it’s normal for people to be fearful after the mass killing.
“It’s a horrific event. It’s really normal for all of us to experience that in some way and to be affected by that even if you’re not directly impacted by it,” she said.
People who live in Nova Scotia and are closer to the event compared to residents of other places in Canada are going to feel like that’s more relevant to them and “their brains are going to encode that as a bigger threat.”
Lee-Baggley said that part of our brain works automatically and unconsciously, meaning it can’t be turned on or off.
“There is a part of our brain formed in caveman, caveperson times, which is built for survival and stores that kind of threat information,” she said.
She said incidents of police brutality are adding to that sense of threat. People can also be impacted by watching news reports from the United States. Of late, news coverage there has been focused on the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The incident was captured on video by a bystander and has led to protests worldwide, some of which have turned violent.
“It doesn’t have to happen to you directly for your brain to encode that as a danger,” Lee-Baggley said. “So the fear response and feeling anxious and worried is a really normal response that’s coming from your survival brain.”
She said time should help diminish the fear, but if people find it hasn’t and their fears are impacting their behaviour, they should seek mental-health counselling.
Lee-Baggley said it’s important for the RCMP to take measures aimed at restoring public trust, like being transparent and including mental-health experts in their efforts to allay the public’s fears.