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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police reform could have improved Victoria airport incident response

The airport shutdown earlier this week could’ve been handled better if police had shared information faster and used resources close at hand, says MLA Adam Olsen

By Brishti Basu
May 28, 2022
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police reform could have improved Victoria airport incident response

The airport shutdown earlier this week could’ve been handled better if police had shared information faster and used resources close at hand, says MLA Adam Olsen

By Brishti Basu
May 28, 2022
Victoria International Airport, as seen from above in 2021. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Victoria International Airport, as seen from above in 2021. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police reform could have improved Victoria airport incident response

The airport shutdown earlier this week could’ve been handled better if police had shared information faster and used resources close at hand, says MLA Adam Olsen

By Brishti Basu
May 28, 2022
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Police reform could have improved Victoria airport incident response
Victoria International Airport, as seen from above in 2021. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

On Tuesday, an estimated 1,800 passengers’ travel plans were disrupted when a man tried to enter the Victoria International Airport departure wing with two suitcases containing “incendiary devices” and “inert military surplus explosives.” The lack of timely and accurate information for  passengers and the fragmented police system slowing down the response time are examples of why police reform is needed, according to BC Green Party MLA Adam Olsen.

Between 2:30pm and 8pm on May 24, about 20 flights to and from Victoria were either cancelled, diverted, or delayed, according to Rod Hunchak, the airport’s director of business development and community relations. 

After airport security had detected something suspicious in the man’s first bag, they called Sidney/North Saanich RCMP at about 1:30pm. It then took four hours for the department to share information about the reason behind the cancelled flights and the cordoned off departure wing. 

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“It’s very disruptive [for] anybody who has been on one of those flights,” said Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands. In the hours before RCMP informed the public via press conference about the nature of their investigation, Olsen says he was receiving multiple calls from concerned constituents seeking information. 

The questioning and alarm grew when, at about 3:20pm, the airport’s official Twitter account notified people that it had closed to all commercial flights and asked travellers to stay away from the airport. The account shared little else until just before 8pm, when they announced the situation had been resolved. 

Conflicting information

CTV News reported that passengers on flights had been told the reason behind their delay: a traveller with an object or device in their baggage. Passengers on the ground, however, were told far less and left scrambling to figure out next steps in their travel plans. 

“We provided information to the public as directed by the RCMP, what we could,” Hunchak told Capital Daily. 

While the airport shared the broad news of flights being cancelled, Hunchak says individual air carriers were left in charge of deciding what to tell passengers about why their travel plans had changed. This meant conflicting and confusing information, and some were even told their flights were cancelled due to COVID-19.

“I don't even have an understanding of what cancelling a flight because of COVID would even mean,” Hunchak said. An email, seen by Capital Daily, shows Air Canada informing its passengers of just that. 

“We’re sorry, AC8172 from Victoria to Vancouver is cancelled due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation, which includes government entry requirements, travel advisories, crew constraints, and local movement restrictions,” reads the email. “This affects both international and domestic flights due to our interconnected route network.”

This type of information gap in a timely manner, according to Olsen, can result in less confidence in police response—a subject he says was discussed to some extent during the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act hearings which took place over the past two years and led to 11 recommendations that seek to overhaul policing in the province. The committee heard from 411 individuals and organizations before making their recommendations.  

“The more open they are with the information that they can give at the earliest possible time, is going to instil confidence in the public that the situation is under control,” Olsen said. “I think, the mixed message of saying things are fine, the public should be OK, but we're still not getting all the information, [the airport is] still closed… then people are going to be asking questions.”

For their part, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Andres Sanchez says police notified the public as soon as they were available to, and that officers’ priorities include investigating the incident and “maintaining the integrity of [the] investigation.”

“RCMP do not direct when the airport releases this information to the public,” Sanchez said in a statement to Capital Daily. “There was consultation with airport communications officers on how many details regarding the specific items should be released as investigators were still trying to confirm what they were dealing with.”

The police response to this incident also elicited questions about another topic discussed in the Police Act hearings: how a more integrated police force could speed up response times.

Fragmentation

After airport security had scanned the man’s first bag containing an incendiary device, Sanchez says there was no place to scan and hold the second bag, which they suspected would also contain potentially dangerous items.

“We had no idea,” Sanchez said. “We had one bag which we knew there were possible devices in and a second which may have had other devices, but we couldn’t confirm.”

To safely examine this second bag, RCMP called in their Explosives Disposal Unit which had to travel over from the Lower Mainland. Though the Victoria Police Department and the military base in Esquimalt both have bomb squads of their own, they were not called to help. 

“The Department of National Defence very well may have bomb disposal units, but they're not trained police investigators,” Sanchez said. “Victoria doesn't have jurisdiction here. So certainly we do rely on them, but in this situation, we rely on the RCMP trained officers to come and deal with it, for an RCMP file.”

Olsen says the police response to this incident is an example of how amalgamating police forces could have led to a better response. He noted that fragmentation of police services has been identified by the Special Committee report as one of the biggest problems in BC policing. 

“You have a situation where there are resources that are much closer by and people's lives are being disrupted pretty substantively… the fragmentation is a cost,” Olsen said. 

“The longer the province takes to address these issues, the more instances we're going to see where our recommendations actually address some of the deficiencies in our police services.”

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