HALIFAX — The spouse of the gunman who killed 22 Nova Scotians in the 2020 mass shooting is calling for improved police training and handling of domestic violence.
Jessica Zita, a lawyer representing the killer's spouse Lisa Banfield, told a federal-provincial inquiry Thursday that police should have identified that the gunman was a high risk to cause significant violence given his "alarming history."
“The police failed to protect the people of Nova Scotia from the perpetrator by failing to follow up on opportunities to identify him as a risk on a number of occasions dating back several years," Zita said Thursday.
Long before Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people in an April 2020 rampage through rural Nova Scotia, he assaulted a teenager in 2001, he threatened to kill his parents in 2010 and he told someone that he wanted to "kill a cop" in 2011.
A former neighbour of the gunman, Brenda Forbes, has testified she told police that Wortman had pinned Banfield to the ground in July 2013 but nothing was done about it.
Zita said police should update their protocols and training so they are better equipped to identify "high-risk circumstances" and respond to domestic violence.
"There must be a mandate towards training officers to respect and empower victims of domestic violence, including those that are reluctant and ambivalent," Zita said.
"Police forces should be educated on coercive control and how it manifests," she said.
Erin Breen, who represents Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and Wellness Within, told the inquiry that data shows a high correlation between perpetrators of mass killings and prior history of gender-based violence.
Banfield has testified that Wortman assaulted her and threatened her with weapons on numerous occasions throughout their 19-year relationship. Inquiry interviews have also found that he was violent with his first wife.
"It is therefore at our own peril that we, as a society, cling to uninformed biases and stereotypes to dismiss gender-based violence as a private matter that does not affect us personally," Breen said.
Zita also told the inquiry that the RCMP’s conduct while gathering information to charge Banfield with providing ammunition to the gunman was deceptive, “ill-informed and out of touch.”
Banfield, her brother and her brother-in-law were charged in December 2020 for providing ammunition to Wortman ahead of the mass shooting, though none of them knew how the ammunition would be used. Their charges have been resolved through restorative justice.
The lawyer said RCMP officers feigned sensitivity in their many conversations with Banfield following the mass shooting while “plotting” to charge her. Zita said one of Banfield’s lawyers requested that police alert them if they began investigating Banfield as a suspect, but this did not happen.
"The police have to know that this is inappropriate action on their part and inappropriate conduct to betray the trust of a victim of domestic violence," Zita said.
The inquiry is scheduled to have its final day of public proceedings Friday, though commission counsel say they are keeping an eye on hurricane Fiona as it make its way to the East Coast to ensure it’s safe for participants to attend.
The federal Department of Justice, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, the National Police Federation and the East Coast Prison Justice Society are scheduled to give final submissions Friday.
Members of the public will continue to be able to submit suggestions to the inquiry by phone, email, survey and mail until the end of the month.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press
Nova Scotia's Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24/7 by calling toll-free 1-888-429-8167. Kids Help Phone counsellors can be reached at 1-800-668-6868.
Call 911 for emergency situations.
Additional mental health and wellness resources can be found here or by calling 211.