Feb 02 2011 EDMONTON - The RCMP's second in command says the ambush murder of four Alberta Mounties has led them to re-think how to secure a crime scene and better prepare officers to expect the unexpected.
"We've enhanced our training ... with respect to scene security, in that officers are now taught scene awareness,'' Senior Deputy Commissioner Rod Knecht told reporters Wednesday, a day after testifying at the Mayerthorpe fatality inquiry.
Knecht said cadets are taught to think outside the box about what could happen and what other dangers might exist, and to not get tunnel vision and focus on one specific suspect or threat.
"Be more aware of what's going on around you,'' said Knecht. "See the totality of your circumstances and the environment in which you're functioning.''
He stressed that while those recommendations come out of the shootings near Mayerthorpe, they don't apply to how police guarded the Quonset hut in the critical hours when gunman James Roszko somehow slipped past the cordon to re-enter the massive shed and eventually kill the officers.
Knecht stressed that Roszko was an anomaly whose violent actions were off the charts in terms of predictable behaviour.
Roszko had fled the scene in his pickup truck a day earlier when police and bailiffs arrived to repossess the vehicle. Roszko was known as a loner with a violent past but had more or less stuck to himself for years.
Police then found a marijuana grow-op and stolen car parts "chop shop'' in the Quonset. They began dismantling it for evidence and were guarding it overnight to make sure the crime scene wasn't disturbed.
Knecht said such suspects are usually angry at the time but soon calm down. Instead, Roszko got angrier, got a rifle and a ride back to the scene from friends, and walked back to the Quonset under cover of darkness to exact revenge.
He noted Roszko was diabolically methodical, covering himself with a white bedsheet to blend in with the snow, putting socks over his boots to muffle his footsteps, and stepping in tire tracks to avoid leaving footprints.
The bedsheet and other items were later found outside on a front corner of the Quonset, a couple of metres from the massive, open vehicle door, suggesting Roszko needed just seconds to dash inside.
"He knew every inch of that land. He was aware of the vulnerabilities of that land and he took full advantage,'' said Knecht.
Nevertheless, Knecht agreed the evidence showed there may have been times when the front of the large hut was unmanned.
Johnston and Gordon had initially positioned their cruisers to watch its front as well as the yard, but sometime during the night the cruisers had moved to provide a better view of the yard, but a diminished view of the Quonset.
As well, when Scheimann and Myrol arrived the next morning, there were a few minutes when all four Mounties were at the back the Quonset sedating Roszko's dogs.
"That may have been one of the occasions (when Roszko entered) but I don't think anybody really knows how he got in there,'' said Knecht, adding that focusing on the couldas, wouldas and what-ifs blurs the bottom line.
"In my estimation, the scene was well secured.''
The lessons of Roszko live on at Depot, the RCMP training academy in Regina, he said.
Knecht added that prior to Mayerthorpe, police were already planning to create a mock rural acreage - complete with a main house and outbuildings - to train cadets. That came out of previous deaths of officers. After Mayerthorpe, he said, the farm yard was finally set up and a Quonset hut was added.
One of the training scenarios now involves a suspect fleeing a small farm and then returning by stealth to come after officers - a direct result of Mayerthorpe.
Knecht agreed that aerial photos of the semi-circular metal structure, with bodies under tarps around it, has become the icon of a nightmarish day, but he said that hasn't stopped the RCMP from using it to help cadets focus.
"It is a structure that resonates with police officers,'' he said. "But the reality is that every day we have members out there going out into that environment where there is a Quonset.
"That just ups the game with respect to training. It's not about exposing them to issues that may be very emotional, but exposing them to the reality of policing in the 21st century.''
Knecht also said the RCMP has been issuing hard body armour to officers around the country, but admits it will never be the answer.
"It's not operationally practical... wearing it while doing a routine patrol would be impossible.''
Knecht said the RCMP has since sent hard body armour to the Mayerthorpe detachment along with others in Alberta and elsewhere.
"It's being distributed to the highest-risk locations as we move around the country,'' he said. Detachments in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have already received the vests.
The vests are very expensive and the RCMP faces three-year waits while manufacturers focus on making the armour for scores of larger clients such as the U.S. military, Knecht said.
The experience has been mixed for officers on general duty patrols, riding around in cruisers, hopping in and out between the car and the office, he added.
"It's extremely uncomfortable. It's hot. When you're sitting down, it cuts into your thighs.''
What officers gain in protection they lose in flexibility and agility, Knecht testified. "They prefer that quickness of movement.''
He outlined other changes to help police respond faster to emergencies that involve lethal force. He said the force is rolling out armoured personnel carriers to detachments around the country rather than keeping them based in Ottawa.
More emergency response team members are being put on that job full time rather than participating part-time and being called out as needs arise, he said.
Detachments also are collecting and distributing more information on potential threats in a community. There is more focus on "behavioural sciences'' - predicting which people may turn violent.
"That's become a growth industry.''
The 33-year police veteran choked up when describing the investigation into the deaths.
When asked by Crown lawyer Alan Meikle what his main recommendation would be, Knecht pointed to Dennis Cheeseman and Shawn Hennessey, the two men now in jail for giving Roszko a rifle and a ride back to his farm hut on the night before the ambush.
Previous court hearings have been told the pair considered warning the RCMP but decided not to out of fear of reprisal from Roszko.
Without naming the pair, Knecht said the RCMP must work to nurture good relationships with communities, "so that if there is a threat to a police officer they will provide us with that information so we can respond to that threat.''
Hennessey's mother, Sandy, was in the courtroom, her hands gripping the arms of her chair, as she looked straight at Knecht. But she showed no emotion.
Knecht said the four constables did the best job they could the day they died.
"They're heroes in my eyes.''
Judge Daniel Pahl is to hear one more day of evidence on Friday before he writes up his recommendations on ways to prevent similar deaths. He cannot assign blame.