When Sgt. Andy O’Brien listened to three of his fellow officers relay over radio they were hearing what could be gunshots or explosions in Portapique, his focus was ensuring their safety, the now-retired Mountie has testified.
O’Brien was off shift on the night of April 18, 2020, and had consumed four to five drinks of rum at home between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. AT, at which point the first 911 calls came in, he said Tuesday.
“I have a very strong sense of responsibility for the members that I’m responsible to. I lost a member in 2017 who worked for me. My nightmare that night was I was going to lose another,” O’Brien told the inquiry tasked with examining the 13-hour rampage that left 22 people dead, injured others and devastated many in Nova Scotia.
In the first hour of the police response on April 18, 2020, O’Brien — whose Monday-to-Friday job was overseeing the daily operations of the RCMP in Colchester County — communicated by radio from home with the team of three officers on foot in a subdivision police would later discover 13 people had been killed.
O’Brien advised them to “be very, very cautious, do not be aggressive” and not to approach a burning building unless someone was at risk.
He testified the RCMP code of conduct prohibits anyone who’s been drinking from working and though he felt he didn’t violate that, he was aware it could “bring into question the integrity of any decision-making” and hurt the confidence other officers and the public had in him.
Because of the optics, he advised his boss, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, who went into work as a result.
O’Brien testified he got his wife to drive him to his detachment to pick up a portable radio.
“I was not intoxicated, but that’s not the point. The point is there’s always going to be a perception if people are aware you’ve been drinking … that you’re compromised,” he said.
O’Brien is one of two senior RCMP officers who was approved to answer questions in recorded sessions, as opposed to in front of a roomful of participants and lawyers.
Lawyers representing families could submit questions in advance, but some boycotted proceedings in Truro, N.S., because they were not permitted to directly question O’Brien and Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, who testified Monday. Neither session was live streamed as has been the case with every other witness, but the commission said it will post the video.
Anna Mancini, the lawyer asking questions for the Mass Casualty Commission, pointed out some of O’Brien’s directions to front-line officers appeared “at odds or contradictory” with his claim that he would not make decisions about the police response.
She specifically asked about O’Brien’s comment to “hold off” when Const. Chris Grund asked about sending a second team into the subdivision where they knew four children were hiding in a home.
O’Brien testified he only got on the radio after waiting “what seemed to me to be a lifetime” for someone else to respond, and did so after 15 seconds because he was fearful the officer would take it upon himself to go in.
He also characterized his response to “hold off” as pointing out established RCMP protocol not to send two teams of officers into an area with an active shooter situation as opposed to making an order.
“It wasn’t a decision, it was ‘this is our training’ … We don’t want anybody else in the crossfire,” he said.
In that instance, O’Brien said the officers in charge — Rehill, Carroll and Staff. Sgt. Steve Halliday — were very busy and he felt “compelled” to help as it was “a case of obviously none of them heard the transmission or were in a position to respond to it.”
O’Brien said he did not believe alcohol affected his judgment.
3 weeks of testimony from commanders
This is the third week senior officers have testified about the decisions they made and information they processed during the shooting rampage.
O’Brien, like Carroll and Rehill, said he had no memory of hearing Const. Vicki Colford communicate on the radio that she was hearing about a back way out of Portapique. At the time, the RCMP were trying to seal off the community and only later realized the gunman drove out on a private road along a blueberry field that did not appear to be an exit on maps, they testified.
O’Brien also said he did not remember if Colford brought this up when he spoke to her on the phone about 20 minutes after her radio broadcast.
Throughout his testimony, O’Brien said he could not remember specific details or conversations, including the person he spoke with in some cases.
For example, O’Brien said he knew he consulted someone by phone before giving Grund and Const. Bill Neil the go-ahead to walk into Portapique to try to rescue the children.
Rehill was overseeing the response for the first three hours from the RCMP’s communications centre. Early on April 19, Staff Sgt. Jeff West took over as critical incident commander and worked with a team at the fire hall in Great Village, N.S.
On Monday, Rehill testified he called O’Brien around 3 a.m. to relay West’s wishes that due to things “getting awfully confusing,” he and O’Brien needed to “step back” and let the command team “run the show.”
Challenges remembering details
Mancini asked specifically about an exchange that occurred about an hour after that conversation, when West asked O’Brien over radio to stop telling officers stationed around Portapique they could leave checkpoints if other officers were there.
The direction to try to relieve those officers would’ve come from someone else, O’Brien testified.
“I’m not sure how that evolved. I believe that was instructions given to me by one manager and then a rethink or correction by another manager,” he said.
“It’s also possible I misinterpreted the conversation of whoever I was speaking with, I don’t know. I have no memory or notes.”
Mancini, as other lawyers for the commission have, asked if there was confusion about who was issuing commands to front-line officers on the radio.
O’Brien responded by describing an analogy of creating a “beast” of a structure of more than 100 people in a few hours “with a business plan no one has seen before you started the task” to try to stop a threat.
He said any time there is a command post, the volume of information being processed is overwhelming.
“It’s impossible to create something in that breadth, and in that time span, with that lack of understanding what the challenges are, without having some crossed wires,” he said, adding it’s difficult to relate the scale and complexity of the response to civilians.
O’Brien went off shift to sleep for a few hours overnight and reported to the command post the following morning, around the time 911 calls started coming in about new shootings.
As the tactical team rushed to try to track down the gunman, O’Brien and Carroll drove to Portapique to ensure officers were still watching the crime scenes from the night before.
Secured scenes in Portapique
It would still be hours before police discovered the full extent of the carnage. Officers did not locate the bodies of five people in two homes on Cobequid Court until much later, and hours after family members called looking for information.
Had he known there might be more victims, finding them would have been the top priority, O’Brien testified. But he said he never received any information from the RCMP’s dispatch centre about people who hadn’t been accounted for.
One officer, Const. Nick Dorrington, previously told the inquiry that O’Brien sent him out to drive around Portapique and look for bodies on lawns.
When asked about Dorrington’s comments, O’Brien said he only recalled trying to offer a break to an officer guarding a gruesome crime scene, and knew the officer would only leave to take a drive if he was given another task.
He said it never occurred to him there could be other scenes.
“It was such a unique situation. I’d never been to a crime scene that extended past what we were aware of,” he said.
“I wish we had known. I wish we had found them soon. I can’t imagine what the families went through.”
‘No magic solution’
Mancini asked about suggestions for improving future responses, but O’Brien said there is “no magic solution.”
“It’s such a multi-legged process that there are going to be gaps. There’s lots of things about this incident that I wish had been different,” he said.
“But we can’t change those. We did our best. There were parts of this process that I really wish we could’ve done better, but we did the best with what we had at the time.”