Many Slocan residents were sharply critical of the RCMP Monday during a public meeting into last month’s incident that left a man dead. Some said the large police response caused them far greater anxiety than the events that precipitated it.
During the calm two-hour debriefing, moderated by former New Denver mayor Gary Wright, three senior Mounties also heard concerns about communication during the incident and about trauma police may have caused children.
Peter de Groot, 45, was shot and killed in a cabin near the community on October 13 after a five-day manhunt that began when he allegedly fired a gun on police. For the first two days, residents were told not to leave their homes, while vehicles were prevented from entering the village.
Chief Supt. Frank Smart, the commander of the RCMP in southeast BC and Supt. Timothy Head, an expert in critical incident management, joined Insp. Tom Roy, the top officer in the West Kootenay/Boundary for the session.
Smart told the packed hall that he recognized the public has “expressed frustration” over a lack of information about the incident, but due to an investigation by BC’s Independent Investigations Office, he couldn’t address specifics and could only speak in generalities.
He said in addition to the IIO investigation and a possible coroner’s inquest, a review will be conducted by a senior Mountie from Vancouver Island. He said he didn’t yet know the full cost of the police response, but acknowledged it was “an expensive affair” involving 150 officers at different times.
Head said the reason for the massive police presence was that they didn’t know where de Groot was until shortly before he was killed and therefore the scene was never considered “contained.” He also said their intention was always to take de Groot safely into custody, and would have involved negotiators but they did not have the chance before the situation turned deadly.
Roy acknowledged he would have liked to have done some things differently, although he declined to go into specifics. “This was a learning experience, and we learned that a community like Slocan City is almost impossible to lock down,” he said.
Jamie Barber, a longtime local teacher, said his impression was that police lacked sensitivity. “The cowboys came in with the guns drawn, and somebody was going to get shot. That may or may not be the case, but that certainly was the perception,” he said.
“We had a disturbed man in our community who was trying to just get by. All of a sudden, we have nothing but guns around here … That to me seems like absolutely the worst way to deal with it. I think you guys way overblew this and as a result, a man is dead.”
Several speakers asked whether police considered the effect of their actions on evacuated children. Craig Roussain, a custodian at W.E. Graham community school, told the meeting he was asked to get pre-school children ready to go when the bus arrived, but balked when he discovered a police officer with a gun on the front seat.
“I said to myself ‘That is not going to happen to daycare kids.’ … Meanwhile, a plainclothes officer with a shotgun burst through the gate yelling ‘Move, move, move.’ I yelled ‘Stop, they’re only kids.’ It was very scary for everyone. That level of angst needs to be addressed.” Roussain said he doesn’t know what children thought was happening, but is aware of one who will no longer let go of their mother.
Smart said he would ensure the handling of the children would be addressed in the RCMP’s review of the incident. Roy explained, however, that police “made specific effort to make sure plainclothes members escorted the kids out of the school. No emergency response team members or weapons were in the school.”
Don Currie said if the incident had ended with de Groot still alive, the discussion would be entirely different. “I believe we’d be talking about a success. But what we’re talking about is an utter failure.”
Ezra Buller asked how police gauge a threat to them versus the community at large. “I felt a lot less threatened than possibly the RCMP did, and felt that you projected that on us,” he said.
Residents also wondered about police response to the de Groot incident in contrast to another incident a few years ago where someone went around Slocan shooting at public and private buildings. They said they felt let down by police, who did not make any arrests.
Others complained of a lack of direct communication between police and villagers.
“The community is upset with how things were handled and how citizens were handled,” Pat Ashton said. “We weren’t allowed into our town. It was very stressful for all. We’re hoping that from what you gather through these reviews, you take a hard look at the actions you took or didn’t take so other communities don’t go through the same thing.”
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called the Independent Investigations Office the Internal Investigations Office and stated the search for de Groot spanned three days.)