OTTAWA — Police are investigating how a 51-year-old denturist in Nova Scotia was able to get his hands on a seemingly authentic RCMP uniform and mock police cruiser before embarking on a killing spree that ended the lives of 22 people.
But obtaining convincing police gear is not difficult task in Canada, and that’s "extremely worrying" to the Canadian Police Association, whose president said he would welcome more government control of law-enforcement gear.
Impersonating an officer is a federal offence under the criminal code, punishable by up to five years in prison.
But for those who are determined, getting the items necessary to do it is fairly straightforward.
"There's probably lots of police-type equipment and uniform … fairly readily available," said the police association's president, Tom Stamatakis.
It’s not clear how Nova Scotia gunman Gabriel Wortman obtained his gear, but retailers across the country claim to sell uniforms and other tactical equipment to police agencies and the public alike.
The stores sell everything from badge wallets adapted for specific Canadian police agencies, to tactical belts, gloves — even batons and hand-held metal scanners.
Stamatakis said it’s a little more difficult to perfectly replicate the insignia and badges of a specific agency, but members of the public are less likely to notice the details.
"They're either not going to be aware of or pay attention to a lot of the small differences that would indicate whether or not a uniform was legitimate," he said.
That’s part of the reason his association has long advocated for governments to ensure that police uniforms are distinct and difficult to replicate, especially in comparison to private security uniforms.
Some provinces have also put restrictions on equipment typically reserved for police, particularly body armour.
While it’s not common that criminals dress up like peace officers to commit crimes, it has been known to happen.
"I have responded to calls where people portray themselves as police officers and try to take advantage of people," said Stamatakis, a constable in the Vancouver Police Department.
"That definitely happens from time to time."
RCMP policy dictates that officers return all their gear when they leave the service, with exceptions made in some cases for the iconic formal Mountie uniform for official occasions.
Officers are forbidden from selling any part of their kit or uniforms.
The policy also requires that any decommissioned equipment or uniforms be destroyed or altered so they can't be identified or re-worn or re-used as part of the RCMP uniform, according to a statement from the national agency.
One neighbour who knew the Nova Scotia gunman told CTV Atlantic that the killer was a collector of cars and motorbikes, and that he had purchased old police cars.
Those are not difficult to find. The Copart automotive auction site, for example, offers former police vehicles for sale from across Canada and the United States.
Virtually all of the vehicles displayed online have had their emergency equipment and police decals removed, but not all of them. Earlier this week, a used-car dealership in Winnipeg was advertising what appeared to be a decommissioned police vehicle with most of its police stickers still intact.
The RCMP have published detailed specifications for vehicle decals in tender documents, including dimensions, colours and fonts, and diagrams showing placements on cars and motorcycles.
Stamatakis said most people have no business owning the gear, clothing and equipment associated with policing, and he would welcome more government control.
"I think the more difficult it is, or the more oversight there is around ensuring that those items are not easily obtained or replicated so that they can't be misused, the better," he said.
He hopes recommendations come out of the investigation in Nova Scotia to prevent a similar situation from playing out again, to protect Canadians' confidence in their police.
"Any time somebody portrays him- or herself as a police officer, for the purpose of taking advantage of another person, that's a huge concern because it undermines public policing and our ability to protect the public," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2020.
— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press