ABOVE: The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission released a report into the seizure of guns in High River during flooding in June of 2013. Jenna Freeman reports.
OTTAWA – The RCMP watchdog says Mounties improperly took guns from flood-stricken homes in Alberta two years ago — seizures that angered High River residents and fostered mistrust of the national police force.
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In a report released Thursday, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission blames the mistakes on poor leadership, lack of guidance, and failure to communicate with the public.
The RCMP had legal authority to forcibly enter evacuated homes during the natural disaster and even to seize loose firearms in plain view, the commission report says.
The Mounties say the guns could have posed a hazard, as there were reports of break-ins and thefts, and there were over 300 people — including one high-risk offender — who refused to evacuate.
Under the Criminal Code, such seizures did not require a court-approved warrant, but officers failed to take the necessary next step of reporting their actions to a judge.
In addition, RCMP members exceeded their authority by seizing some guns that were properly secured or that were not “in plain view,” the commission found.
In all, 609 firearms were taken from 105 homes.
“While RCMP members, acting on their own initiative and with little guidance, may have acted with public safety in mind, they nonetheless failed to comply with legal requirements concerning the seizure of firearms,” the report says.
“Had the RCMP reported their seizures to the court, it may have addressed many of the concerns and criticisms from residents, the media, and politicians.”
In June 2013, heavy rainfall caused the Highwood River to swell, uprooting trees and engulfing cars and homes. During the crisis, the RCMP, provincial and municipal police, the military, first responders and volunteers rescued some 800 people.
Overall, emergency personnel, including the Mounties, did “a remarkable job” responding to this natural disaster in the initial days, the report says.
What should have been a story about heroic actions of many RCMP members during the devastating flood turned out to be “something far different” for the force, the commission notes.
Watchdog staff interviewed dozens of people and reviewed over 10,000 pages of documents, emails, notes and seizure logs, as well as more than 1,000 images and 50 videos.
The commission says RCMP leadership failed to adequately plan for communications with the public during the catastrophe, which prompted difficulties when word of the forced entries and seizures began circulating.
“What we found was that, all too often, social media filled the gap that the communications people were unable to fill,” commission chairman Ian McPhail said in an interview.
“And in some instances contradictory or incomplete information was communicated to the public.”
The report makes several recommendations, including creation of:
a national crisis communications handbook;guidelines on seizure of firearms, ammunition and contraband during disasters;special forms to ensure better note-taking about forced entries.
The commission will issue a final report once the RCMP does an “in-depth review” and responds.
Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan acknowledged the importance of the CRCC review in a press conference Thursday afternoon.
“We know many people were upset with the property damage that occurred and how we conducted our searches,” she said. “I think we do owe an apology if what we did was unexplainable…I know there were mistakes made; we need time to drill down on the report.”
Ryan said the RCMP’s number one priority was to save lives, and that they’d never dealt with an incident of this magnitude in the past.
“So what our folks did was with the very best of intentions.”
The full report is available here on the Commission’s website.
A look at the numbers in the report:
Homes entered: 4,666.
Forced entries: More than 750.
People discovered in need of help: 38.
Pets rescued: 700.
Firearms removed: 609 from 105 homes.
Marijuana plants seized: From five homes.
Prohibited weapons seized: From one house.
Commission findings: 52.
Commission recommendations: 10.
Source: Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP
Following the release of the report, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis issued a statement saying he believes the findings and recommendations are fair, and urging the Commissioner of the RCMP to accept and adopt them.
While the recommendations focus on the RCMP, which is still analyzing the report, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay told reporters in Calgary they will be followed.
“We will implement the recommendations that are in that report and it’s in keeping with what I think Canadians expect and that is accountability for everyone, including law enforcement.”
In a statement, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson saluted members’ efforts during the disaster. “Our police officers – many directly affected by the devastation themselves – worked long, stressful and emotionally charged hours to keep their community safe.”
Paulson added there is “always room for improvement.”
McPhail said he would be surprised if the recommendations are not implemented.
“They’re all doable. They don’t require huge expense,” he said. “They simply require a more focused attention to how to respond to natural disaster situations.”
See Denis’ complete statement below:
“The 2013 flooding in High River and area was an unprecedented disaster for Alberta. We owe our thanks to first responders for risking their lives to help save lives and property in the midst of changing and dangerous circumstances.
Law enforcement personnel went above and beyond in the hours and days after the flooding began. Some concerns were raised about the RCMP entering homes and seizing guns. I shared several of these concerns, and I wrote to the Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP “K” Division on June 27, 2013.
The investigation into these and other related concerns resulted in many findings and recommendations in the interim report of the independent Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. I believe the findings and recommendations are fair, and I urge the Commissioner of the RCMP to accept them and the RCMP “K” Division to adopt them.
It is not appropriate for the government to interfere in the operations of police, and I note the report did not identify any interference or direction on the part of the Alberta government relating to the RCMP’s decision to seize guns. Alberta continues to defend safe and responsible gun ownership.
I thank the RCMP for their assistance during the floods, including for their key role in locating at least 38 people who needed help.”
With files from Global News