Photo: The Canadian Press
Attorney Jessica Zita, representing Lisa Banfield, addresses the Mass Casualty Commission’s inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on 18/19. April 2020 in Truro, NS on Thursday September 22, 2022. Gabriel Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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 the gunman as a high risk of causing significant violence given his “alarming history.”
“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 his 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 he wanted to “kill a cop” in 2011.
A former neighbor of the gunman, Brenda Forbes, has testified that she told police 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 needs to be a mandate to train officers to respect and empower victims of domestic violence, including those who are reluctant and ambivalent,” Zita said.
“Police forces should be trained in coercive control and how it manifests itself,” she said.
Erin Breen, who represents the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, the Avalon Sexual Assault Center and Wellness Within, told the study that data shows a high correlation between the perpetrators of mass killings and prior history of gender-based violence.
Banfield has testified that Wortman assaulted her and threatened her with a gun on numerous occasions throughout their 19-year relationship. Inquiries interviews have also shown that he was abusive with his first wife.
“It is therefore at our 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 inquest that the RCMP’s conduct while gathering information to charge Banfield with supplying ammunition to the gunman was misleading, “ill-informed and out of touch.”
Banfield, her brother and her brother-in-law were charged in December 2020 with supplying ammunition to Wortman prior to the mass shooting, although 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 after the mass shooting while “planning” to charge her. Zita said one of Banfield’s lawyers asked the police to warn them if they began investigating Banfield as a suspect, but that did not happen.
“The police need to know that this is inappropriate action on their part and inappropriate behavior to betray the trust of a victim of domestic violence,” Zita said.
The inquiry is scheduled to have its final day of public proceedings on Friday, although commission advisers say they are keeping an eye on Hurricane Fiona as it heads to the east coast to ensure it is safe for participants to take part.
The federal Department of Justice, the Attorney General for Nova Scotia, the National Police Federation and the East Coast Prison Justice Society are scheduled to make final submissions Friday.
Members of the public will continue to be able to submit proposals to the inquiry via telephone, email, survey and mail until the end of the month.