MONCTON, N.B. - RCMP officers were caught outgunned and "ill-prepared" to confront a gunman who targeted them on a warm summer night in 2014, a judge ruled Friday as he convicted the national police force of failing to provide its members with adequate use-of-force equipment and user training.
Judge Leslie Jackson was harshly critical of how long it took the RCMP to equip its officers with carbine rifles ahead of the Moncton attack, which left three Mounties dead and two others injured.
Justin Bourque had targeted police officers in hopes of sparking an anti-government rebellion.
"It is clear to me that the use-of-force equipment available to those members on June 4, 2014, left them ill-prepared to engage an assailant armed with an automatic rifle," the provincial court judge said in his 64-page decision.
Rank and file members told the Labour Code trial they were outgunned by Bourque, who roamed a Moncton neighbourhood and opened fired on officers as people walked dogs and children played in yards nearby.
Constables Fabrice Gevaudan, Dave Ross and Doug Larche were killed, while constables Eric Dubois and Darlene Goguen were injured in the shootings.
The C8 carbine rifle was a central focus of the trial. The high-powered weapons were not available to general duty officers at the time of the Moncton shootings, and numerous witnesses who testified said they could have made a difference.
Carbine rifles were approved for use in 2011, but their rollout was delayed on several occasions.
The judge noted that Alphonse MacNeil, a retired assistant RCMP commissioner who conducted an independent review of the shootings for the force, stated during the trial that at the time of his review, he said the rollout of the patrol carbine program should be expedited.
"I agree with MacNeil's conclusion. The rollout took too long, even allowing for all the variables and challenges," said Jackson.
"A real concern for the health and safety of front-line members... would have seen a rollout of the patrol carbine prioritized and not left to the vagrancies of available funding."
The judge also accused RCMP leadership — who were unanimous in saying officers were adequately equipped — of sticking to "talking points designed to be the justification for their position" during testimony at the trial.
"Their opinion is based on their observations made from the comfort and security of their offices; however the view of the responding officers who were facing imminent danger that day is different," he said.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Friday's decision "carries important implications" and that the Trudeau government would be studying it carefully.
"We need to make sure that the training, the equipment and the support services are there to put those officers in the position of doing the very best job they can to keep the community safe and at the same time, to keep themselves safe," said Goodale in Regina on Friday.
Jackson found the Crown did not prove its case on two other Labour Code violations, and issued a judicial stay on a fourth charge.
The wives of the three fallen officers sat quietly in the packed Moncton courtroom amongst Mounties in plain clothes and at least one trial witness as the verdicts were read out during the brief hearing.
"I felt all along that if the RCMP members would have had the proper equipment that my husband would not have died and the father of my children would not have died," Doug Larche's wife, Nadine, said outside the courthouse, across the road from a life-sized bronze monument of her husband and the two other slain officers.
"My hope really is that the silver lining of all of this is that RCMP members that are serving now and in the future will be better equipped and that they'll be safer."
Angela Gevaudan, wife of Fabrice, said she felt "vindicated." She said the RCMP's decision to fight the Labour Code charges had hurt the policing community.
"It's been very disheartening to have these charges challenged in the first place," she said. "I think it breaks the trust and I think the members are still very hurt and feel unsupported and I think that needs to be addressed."
Cpl. Patrick Bouchard echoed that sentiment, saying senior leadership needs to listen to its members when it comes to responding to their needs. Bouchard worked alongside the Mounties who died and in June wrote an open letter on Facebook condemning the testimony of then-commissioner Bob Paulson in the trial.
Paulson had testified that management had concerns over the possible militarization of the force.
"When the organization fails — and it's been proven today — that it fails to support the rank and file these tragedies happen," Bouchard said Friday outside the courthouse. "This is why the RCMP needs to step it up and listen to the rank and file to what we need."
Lawyer Mark Ertel, who represented the RCMP at the trial, said Friday "it's too early to tell" whether the force will appeal.
But Const. Louis Philippe Theriault, president of the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada, urged the RCMP to accept responsibility for not properly equipping members.
"I don't think tragedies can be avoided, but I think the magnitude of those tragedies can be mitigated if we have proper equipment," he said.
Ertel said they hope to detail what the RCMP has done to equip its officers at the Nov. 23 sentencing hearing.
Crown attorney Paul Adams said the RCMP had been convicted of "what I would categorize as a very serious offence and I expect we'll be approaching it that way when it comes to an appropriate sentence."
In a statement issued from RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, the force says it will review the decision and consider the next steps.
Jackson found the force guilty under the Labour Code of failing to provide its members with the appropriate use-of-force equipment and user training when responding to an active threat or active shooter in an open environment.
But the force was found not guilty of failing to provide its members and supervisors with the appropriate training for an active shooter event.
Jackson said the available training enabled officers to respond to the threat they faced and additional training noted by the Crown during the trial did not exist prior to June 4, 2014.
He stayed a charge of failing to ensure, in general, the health and safety of its members.
The defence argued at the trial that the RCMP exercised due diligence in its rollout of patrol carbines, while the Crown argued management knew front-line officers were at risk and the rollout of carbines took too long.
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