June 7, 2022

MCC Day 33 – Attempts to Explain RCMP-Issued Tweets and Facebook Posts During Mass Casualty

One of the main complaints in the immediate aftermath of the April 18-19, 2020 mass casualty events was the use by the RCMP of social media posts to warn the public, rather than issuing an emergency alert to citizens’ cell phones, and then the low degree of accuracy of the content of those posts. Today, after a brief presentation by Commission lawyer Anna Mancini, three witnesses attempted to explain why Twitter was the primary communication platform chosen, and why accurate information was so seemingly difficult to provide to the public.

By now, we know that key information, such as the fact that the killer was in a fully marked replica RCMP car, his name, and that he had not been captured, was known to at least some RCMP officers since before 11pm on the night of the 18th. At 11:32pm, a tweet was issued from the RCMP account noting that there was a firearm complaint in the Portapique area and that people should stay in their homes. Nothing else was sent out until 8:02am the next morning.

Eleven further tweets were issued, but there were delays in issuing photos of the perpetrator and his replica car, and each time a tweet was sent, the information was delayed so much so as to be of little practical use. As a result, even those such as Kristen Beaton, who was tracking social media that morning, did not have basic information that was known to police, which they could have used to protect (and likely save) themselves.

The witnesses today were retired Cpl. Jennifer Clarke, who people may recognize as a frequent spokesperson for the RCMP in Nova Scotia, Glenn Mason from EMO, and Superintendent Dustine Rodier. Cpl. Clarke was involved in the drafting and sending of the tweets. Mr. Mason was the EMO official who offered the RCMP use of the Alert Ready system. Spt. Rodier was in charge of the Operational Communications Centre, and has been a central focus of questions around the failure to use the Alert Ready system.

Cpl. Clarke described the structure the RCMP used before a public alert could be issued. As we have heard from other witnesses, there were multiple layers of supervisors who are consulted for approval of the outgoing messages. Involved in the decision were Cpl. Clarke, Lia Scanlan, S/Sgt. MacCallum, S/Sgt. Halliday, Cpl. Coutreau, Cindy Bayers, and, it would seem, Spt. Campbell, and S/Sgt. West.

At one point, Cpl. Clarke described an agonizing half hour wait for approval to issue the photo of the replica police car. It was very clear from Cpl. Clarke’s evidence that the notion of making a decision without approval, even when it may be clear to the officer that the need for action is urgent, is a foreign concept in the RCMP. She was going to use the same process in an active shooter situation as would be used when there was no time pressure, and seemed to have felt responsible to have the same level of accurate detail as would be available to release publicly after a thorough investigation.

Glenn Mason’s main job with EMO is to ensure that adequate resources are on hand when EMO is engaged in activity. He is not a decision-maker, per se, but was involved on the morning of the 19th because EMO was mobilizing, and there was a chance his services would be needed. His main purpose as a witness today was to confirm and describe a phone call with RCMP S/Sgt. Steve Ettinger where he conveyed an offer from EMO to the RCMP to use the Alert Ready system.

The Staff Sergeant’s response was one I would interpret as surprised recognition of a good idea. In fact, the officer voiced on the call what the message could say, in simple, accurate terms. It was a real-time demonstration of how quickly an effective message can be drafted without unnecessary bureaucratic constraints. By the time these conversations were taking place, however, the situation was ending. No real progress seems to have taken place (from the perspective of the RCMP) on the notion of issuing an alert.

The most fascinating part of the day was the final witness, Spt. Rodier, who was in charge of Strategic Communications. Spt. Rodier came across to me as what Cpl. Mills would describe as a politician police officer. She was very well prepared, with a clear sense of what narratives she wished to present. She took many of the questions asked and gave lengthy answers in defense of the RCMP response to these events, and to their policies and approaches to all things policing. (Lawyers for the participants made attempts during cross examination to keep Spt. Rodier from going on at length, to various degrees of success.)

Unlike most other witnesses from whom we have heard, Spt. Rodier has been following the events of the Mass Casualty Commission very closely. She was able to reference the testimony of multiple other witnesses, and the Foundational Documents.

On the substantive issue of the Alert Ready system, she says she did not know what it was in April, 2020. She may have known more than she is prepared to admit. Evidence from Glenn Mason and others suggests there were presentations to the RCMP from EMO on Alert Ready in 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2020. There is no proof that she attended any of the presentations, but certainly one would expect the development of such a potentially important tool to at least occasionally make it on the radar of a communications Superintendent. It is in her interests to downplay Alert Ready, and so unless it can be proven that she knew something, I expect she will continue to deny it.

There was no cross-examination of Spt. Rodier until after 5pm, which was another win for her. No evening news reports will cover the more difficult portions of her testimony. I suspect Spt. Rodier knew this and that this in part, explains her longer answers in her direct examination with the MCC lawyer.

Those media members who had to drop off to meet their deadlines missed some very good cross examination. Spt. Rodier had stated, unchallenged, during her direct testimony that one of the risks of the Alert Ready system was a flood of calls, and claimed that 29% of attempted 911 calls after an alert was issued soon after the mass casualty. Mr. Bryson showed that this number was unreliable, that all calls may have been appropriately diverted to other call takers, and that the percentage could very well have been zero.

Tara Miller asked about follow up on the MacNeil Report, which followed the Moncton RCMP shootings. One recommendation had been to ensure all members have access to high level mapping, such as the Pictometry system. The RCMP website states that this recommendation was implemented in 2017, but multiple witnesses have stated that Pictometry was not functioning, or for some it could not be accessed.

Most importantly, in her answers to Tom MacDonald, Spt. Rodier said that if there was another Portapique today, the issuing of an Alert Ready message would be “considered”. In many ways this encapsulated her evidence. She was not going to admit any fault personally or for the force. A cynic might think she was auditioning for a promotion.