RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testified Thursday that arming Mounties with high-powered carbine rifles raised concerns for him over the possible militarization of the force and needed to be done carefully.
On the stand at the force's Labour Code trial in Moncton, N.B., Paulson said he worried the weapons could create tension between the public and officers.
While members needed to be properly equipped, the C8 carbine had to be rolled out responsibly, he said.
"It's a delicate balancing act," he said. "We have seen situations in the U.S. and some in Canada where this can distance the public from the police."
The national force faces four charges stemming from Justin Bourque's 2014 shooting rampage that left three officers dead and two injured in Moncton. The RCMP is accused of failing to provide the appropriate equipment and training in an active-shooter event.
The C8 carbine rifles — a version of an assault rifle similar to an M16 — were not available to general duty officers during Bourque's shooting spree on June 4, 2014, and numerous witnesses have testified they could have made a difference.
Constables Fabrice Gevaudan, Dave Ross and Doug Larche were killed, while constables Eric Dubois and Darlene Goguen were wounded when Bourque targeted police officers in hopes of sparking an anti-government rebellion.
Paulson wore a black suit Thursday rather than his uniform for one of his final duties as commissioner. He is scheduled to retire at the end of the month after 32 years in the force.
The small courtroom was only about half full. Among those watching Paulson's testimony was one of the fallen officers' wives, Nadine Larche, and Terry McKee of the Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada.
Paulson testified he was involved in initial discussions about the introduction of the C8 carbine, which the RCMP approved in September 2011.
He said it was not acceptable that officers were killed that June evening, but the carbine rollout was unfolding.
"The manner in which carbines were being rolled out was reasonable," Paulson said, who added there was no way to foresee an active outdoor shooter event.
"What happened that day to those officers was terrible. It was an unbelievable event," Paulson said.
He was asked by the defence if trainers should have foreseen it and trained officers for it. Paulson said no, but added that elements of the training were being done.
He said the RCMP needs to demonstrate the ability to use force, but it is not central to its presence.
"We have tanks, drones and machine guns, but are we going to a shoplifter with a carbine?" he said.
He said it doesn't make sense to always be trying to match the weapons used by criminals, and it makes sense to focus on prevention.
Paulson said he learned of the Moncton shootings while on a flight to Vancouver and had a conference call with officials in New Brunswick. He said he was satisfied they were getting the support they needed. He flew to Moncton the day after Bourque was captured.
Paulson said he quickly enlisted retired Mountie Alphonse MacNeil to do an independent report on the shootings and identify any shortcomings in the force as well as take measures to prevent anything like that from happening again.
"It's a completely devastating set of facts our officers were asked to respond to," Paulson said. "They responded heroically and without fail."
In testifying at the Labour Code trial in May, MacNeil noted that the initial response to reports of a camouflage-wearing man wielding firearms in Moncton's north end was appropriate, with members setting up a perimeter.
But operations then started to break down, he said.
He said there was no "lethal force overwatch" during the first encounter with Bourque, meaning no one was in a position to take him down when he turned his weapon on police. MacNeil also said there was a lack of communication.
MacNeil's 2015 report made 64 recommendations and concluded that carbines could have made a difference in the incident. When shots were fired, the perimeter was abandoned because the short range of officers' duty pistols required them to move closer to the suspect.
Crown prosecutor Paul Adams noted Paulson was very careful in the way he answered questions Thursday.
"Were you trying to avoid any RCMP responsibility on these charges?" Adams asked.
Said Paulson: "I am the commissioner of the RCMP. I am accountable for the safety of my officers."
Asked by reporters outside court afterward why he decided to testify, Paulson said: "I represent the RCMP. And as the accused individual — the commissioner that's on the charge — I thought it appropriate to come and tell my story, so I did."
Bourque was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 75 years after pleading guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.
The Labour Code trial will resume July 4 for final arguments. Provincial court Judge Leslie Jackson has already told lawyers he won't render a quick decision.