As the manhunt expands in northern Manitoba for two suspects wanted in connection to three murders in British Columbia, concerns are being raised about the safety of the RCMP’s use of civilian aircraft in the search.
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Police have been searching through the remote Manitoba community of Gillam and the surrounding area since July 22, when a burned-out SUV connected to Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, was found in the region.
As part of the search, officers have deployed armoured vehicles, drones, K9 units, ATVs, boats, and several aircraft, both military and civilian.
Police sources tell CTV News use of these civilian planes and helicopters raises concerns about these pilots’ safety.
While these civilian pilots are sometimes hired for search-and-rescue missions due to their skill and local knowledge, they are inexperienced when it comes to handling a potentially dangerous situation.
"The police pilots are trained in a different way, to take evasive actions if someone's shooting at them and of course those pilots are very trained to observe things on the ground average pilot might not see because they're not used to looking for people, especially armed people," said Chris Lewis, a former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner and CTV News’ safety and security analyst
The RCMP has helicopters all over Canada that are equipped with infrared cameras for night searches, which are not available on most civilian choppers.
The RCMP’s base in Langley, B.C. received a state-of-the-art helicopter in February equipped with night vision, an advanced searchlight and an infrared system.
Robert Cyrenne, the director of communications for Manitoba RCMP, said “every single RCMP resource and asset was made available for this search” and that a variety of factors are considered when deciding which resources to use.
“This may include how long the asset would take to arrive at the location, how long it may be required for, if there is similar equipment already in the area that can be used (and) if the asset can be deployed without being detrimental to the region,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Cyrenne added that Manitoba RCMP’s three aircraft have been used to “transport personnel and assist with the search for the suspects” during the manhunt and that they would continue to use private aircraft when required.
“We would like to not only acknowledge but also commend the cooperation we have received from our partners with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Manitoba Sustainable Development, Custom Helicopters and Prairie Helicopters,” he said. “They have been a tremendous help to our officers and throughout the search.”