RCMP officers ‘not on full alert’ sitting in cruisers while monitoring Parliament Hill, says former deputy commissioner

The RCMP’s “system of coverage” for Parliament Hill failed last Wednesday when a lone gunman carrying a 30-30 Winchester, lever action rifle managed to run onto the grounds, hijack a ministerial car, drive it to the Peace Tower, park and enter through the front doors without any interference.

(RCMP surveillance video captured Michael Zehaf-Bibeau running onto Parliament Hill. Photo/RCMP)

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The RCMP’s “system of coverage” for Parliament Hill failed last Wednesday when a lone gunman carrying a .30-30 Winchester, lever-action rifle managed to run onto the grounds, hijack a ministerial car, drive it to the Peace Tower, park and enter through the front doors without any interference.

That morning the RCMP would have stationed cruisers strategically around Parliament Hill with each cruiser responsible for a specific geographical location on the grounds, according to testimony from Kevin Vickers, the House of Commons’ Sergeant-at-Arms, before a parliamentary committee.

“There’s actually a system in place. It may look, from time to time, like they’re scattered about the precinct in a haphazard way, but there is a purpose behind the stationing of the vehicles at different points,” said Vickers, during testimony before the Commons procedure and House affairs committee in May 2012. “They do have a system of coverage of each car being responsible for a certain geographical area here on the Hill.”

Based on Vickers’ testimony, at least one RCMP cruiser was responsible for the area around the entrance next to East Block where Michael Zehaf-Bibeau entered at a sprint carrying a rifle. Zehaf-Bibeau was eventually killed in a hail of bullets inside Centre Block’s Hall of Honour by RCMP officers and Hill security.

During his testimony before the committee, which was probing why MPs kept getting stopped by the RCMP during VIP events, Vickers said the officers primarily monitor the grounds from their vehicles, rarely emerging to patrol on foot.

“You’re not really going to encounter or have face to face contact with the RCMP. As you know, they are stationed in their vehicles at different perimeters,” said Vickers. “If you are walking up to the building here, unless there was something amiss, the likelihood of your being stopped or being challenged by an RCMP officer would be remote.”

The RCMP officer or officers responsible for security in the geographical location by East Block may have missed Zehaf-Bibeau and the commotion that preceded his entrance because they were sitting in their cruisers, which likely reduced their situational awareness, said a former deputy commissioner for the RCMP.

“The whole thing happened in less than two minutes,” said Pierre-Yves Bourduas, who retired from the police force in 2008 after 33 years with the RCMP. “You are sitting in a police car, you are not on full alert, you are just there monitoring people back and forth conducting business, the way business is conducted on the Hill. All of a sudden they notice this car speeding in front of them.”

The threat level for Parliament Hill had been raised from low to medium that fateful Wednesday morning as a result of a separate attack two days earlier on a soldier in Quebec.

According to Vickers’ testimony before the same Commons procedure and House affairs committee on Oct. 9 of this year, the raised threat level would have led to beefed-up security around the Parliament precinct. Vickers said the threat level is based on daily morning conferences between House of Commons security, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Services and Ottawa police.

“Should there be a heightened incident going on somewhere that we’re concerned about, what we do is we put more plainclothes armed officers out among the precinct,” said Vickers, in his testimony.

The RCMP has yet to explain how Zehaf-Bibeau, with little training or planning, managed to penetrate one of the most heavily monitored areas in the country and enter its most important building with seeming ease.

The RCMP, in the words of acting House of Commons Clerk Marc Bosc during testimony before the same committee, is responsible for “immediate armed response” to security threats on Hill grounds.

Shortly after 9:50 a.m. last Wednesday, Zehaf-Bibeau parked his beige Toyota Corolla in front of the gate closest to East Block and across from Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and is itself under heavy security which includes multiple surveillance cameras.

Moments earlier, Zehaf-Bibeau had fired three shots, two striking and killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and the third missing a second reservist also standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial. The memorial is across the street on the east side of Langevin Block and about 350 metres away from Parliament Hill’s front lawn.

The sounds of gunshots appears not to have triggered any response on Parliament Hill. Images of terrified and fleeing people on the sidewalk in front of Parliament Hill captured by the RCMP’s own surveillance cameras also failed to elicit a response from security personnel.

Even when surveillance cameras captured people scrambling onto Parliament Hill to escape Zehaf-Bibeau, who had now parked his car and was running with rifle in hand through the gate, no alert stirred the RCMP security detail.

Zehaf-Bibeau then ran to a ministerial car, forced the chauffeur out at gunpoint, and drove to Centre Block’s front doors. The 32 year-old Libyan-Canadian actually passed an RCMP cruiser which was parked just to the east of the Peace Tower. By this time, at least one RCMP cruiser was in pursuit, but it was much too late.

CBC News reported Monday that the RCMP and House of Commons security operate on different radio frequencies. This may have impeded the RCMP from alerting Commons security about the evolving situation, the report said.

But Patrick McDonell, deputy sergeant-at-arms and director general for House of Commons security services, told the procedure and House affairs committee on Oct. 9 there is a radio link between the two entities. McDonell said the RCMP’s vehicle screening facility on the west-side of Parliament Hill can communicate with the House of Commons communications centre via radio.

“Often they radio us and say that so-and-so is coming up to visit or whatever the case may be,” said McDonell.

It’s currently unclear what the House of Commons’ own surveillance cameras captured that morning. It is clear Commons security was unaware of what was transpiring. The front doors were unlocked when Zehaf-Bibeau pulled on the handle.

In successive press conferences last week, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud, who is in charge of National Division which is responsible for Hill security, basically argued that speed (the attack took 1:23 seconds from street to front door) and surprise allowed Zehaf-Bibeau to slip through the federal force’s security cordon on a day Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Opposition leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau were meeting with their caucuses inside Centre Block.

In theory, however, the cordon should have snared Zehaf-Bibeau.

Parliament Hill security has been prepared for the scenario of a lone gunman storming the grounds since 1984, said Bourduas. That May, a paranoid schizophrenic former Canadian Forces member named Denis Lortie stormed Quebec’s National Assembly armed with two submachine guns. He killed three people and injured 13. He was talked into surrendering by the National Assembly’s Sergeant-at-Arms Rene Jalbert.

“They looked at this particular incident, they did examine what kind of security was around the Hill at the time,” said Bourduas. “The challenge is to strike the right balance.”

Bourduas said the RCMP analyzes various scenarios as part of its security preparations for the Hill, but nothing is full-proof.

“Someone could walk up to one of these doors with a backpack filled with explosives,” he said. “All these scenarios are possibilities, you cannot think of the millions of possibilities and try to plan for all of them.”

Bourduas said one small security upgrade could have altered the way events ended on Parliament Hill last Wednesday.

“If the front door would have been locked,” he said. “They would have arrested (Zehaf-Bibeau) on the spot.”

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