The former director of communications for the RCMP, who previously told the public inquiry she ‘wouldn’t change anything’ about the way communications were handled during the April 2020 mass shootings, gave evidence from the sidelines of improvement while reflecting on how long it took to tweet about the gunner’s cruiser replica.
Lia Scanlan was the Director of the Strategic Communications Unit for the RCMP in Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020.
Scanlan told Mass Casualty Commission investigators in an interview last fall that she was “super proud” on how his team handled communications with the public during the 1 p.m. rampage that saw a gunman in an RCMP replica kill 22 people, including a constable and a pregnant woman.
In the September 2021 interview, she said after thinking about it for a long time that she “wouldn’t do anything differently.”
Her tone seemed more restrained, and at times she broke into tears, as she answered questions posed by commission lawyers at a public hearing in Truro, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday morning. The day before, one of his team members, now retired Cpl. Jen Clarke, testified about wait nearly half an hour for Scanlan’s approval to post the message.
Roger Burrill, an attorney for the investigation, asked Scanlan how she felt about a manager’s endorsement delaying the tweets.
“I think we should try to do anything to reduce the slowdown of anything, so I think that’s definitely an area after stepping back and critically looking at this particular incident, improvements can be made there. be made,” she said. “The goal is speed and public safety trumps everything else, so I think improvements can be made there.”
The communication has been a point of contention for families of the victims, who have expressed concerns over the force’s choice to release information exclusively through Twitter and Facebook rather than through the provincial Alert Ready system.
They also expressed how long it took to inform the public that the shooter was driving the replica cruiser and wearing a police uniform.
Pending Operational Approval
Scanlan said he learned of a police operation in Portapique, Nova Scotia around 6 a.m. on April 19. Over the next few hours, she worked from home and spoke to half a dozen senior officers about what was going on. She also assigned tasks to her team members – from finding a venue for a press conference to tweeting about the cruiser.
Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum previously told commission investigators that he sent Scanlan photos of the shooter and his vehicle shortly after 8 a.m. after he was instructed to work with her to get a message out to the public.
Clarke finally posted a photo of the cruiser on Twitter at 10:17 a.m. on April 19. During her testimony on Tuesday, she said she wouldn’t have done it without Scanlan’s go-ahead.
Scanlan testified that she did not remember when she first saw the photo of the cruiser – only that she knew investigators were looking into whether the shooter was using it – and insisted that despite the MacCallum’s statements he had spoken to her about what information might ‘be fabricated’, she was not asked to post the photo of the car and was only instructed to tweet about the shooter, which she did at 8:54.
Burrill asked if she had the photo of the cruiser at 8:10 a.m., why she hadn’t shared the photo of the cruiser on social media within minutes and if she assumed the command team didn’t want her to send it .
“At that time, it was my understanding that the decision was not made operationally,” Scanlan said, adding that she understood the command team was considering factors such as risk to officer safety.
“I wasn’t making any assumptions…I wasn’t asked to send the photo.”
She also said she did not bring up the cruiser when she spoke to the chief superintendent. Chris Leather, the head of crime operations, and his plans to share information with the public shortly after speaking with MacCallum.
Clarke in charge of tweeting
She never explained in her testimony when she felt operational approval had been given, but at 9:04 a.m. she assigned the cape. Jen Clarke to write a tweet and get MacCallum’s approval.
She said she hadn’t seen Clarke’s 9:49 a.m. email asking for Scanlan’s final approval because she was on both her home and work phone at the time and didn’t have her email opened in front of her. She said it wasn’t until she called a conference call with her team about 20 minutes later that she read it, along with Clarke’s two follow-up emails, and told him verbally to publish it.
She agreed it was “absolutely a bottleneck,” but said she didn’t expect Clarke to ask for her approval and missed the messages.
Scanlan said “standard operating procedures” would prevent delays in sending future tweets.
Wiping away her tears, she asked for a moment to calm down and said “if I could go back and make these minutes disappear, I would do anything.”
Later, during cross-examination, Sandra McCullough, an attorney representing the families of more than half of the victims, asked about the approval process for the tweets and whether it was “fair to say that liability is ‘stop’ with her.
“Yes,” Scanlan replied.
No explanation in previous interviews
Scanlan did not provide an explanation for the delay in sending the cruiser tweet in the September 2021 interview. In a follow-up interview with commission investigators in February 2022, she attributed the delay to Clarke.
During this second interview, posted earlier this week, Scanlan said she “really couldn’t say” why it took so long to approve the tweet.
“I would have received it and obviously watched it,” she said. “So whatever time I was, I would have come back and said ‘Yeah, approved. Go for it. “”
Scanlan said he told his team on the morning of April 19 that speed was key in getting information out to the public.
“My whole message was, ‘when information comes in, it comes out’,” she said.
“All the rules about Twitter are – they don’t matter right now. It’s information in, information out.”
Clarke testified Tuesday that the unwritten rules about approving messaging in a large-scale incident were clear and was adamant that she could not have sent the tweet without Scanlan’s approval.
The public weighed
Records released by the inquest this week show residents were responding to messages from the RCMP on Twitter and Facebook with increasingly urgent calls to issue an emergency alert.
“Emergency Response System should be activated to warn all persons not to pull over for this vehicle,” one Twitter user wrote in response to the RCMP’s 10:17 a.m. April 19 post about of the replica of the police car.
“I don’t know anyone who even has Twitter, is that how you spread information? What happened to the phone alerts?” asked a Facebook user in response to a post on the RCMP Facebook page at 10:26 a.m. describing an active investigation into a shooter in Portapique.
RCMP managers and senior officers all said they were unaware that the Alert Ready system was an option. Several said it would have been a bad move, suggesting the 911 system would have been overwhelmed by panicked residents.
As she did in September 2021, Scanlan continued to insist in the February 2022 interview that messages sent via Twitter were the only reliable way to communicate with the public during an emergency. .
“We always communicated on social media,” she said. “It’s a best practice; it’s been defined as a best practice, and show me a best practice in policing. There isn’t one.”
Scanlan echoed concerns raised by other officials who said releasing information about the cruiser’s replica via an alert would have led to vigilante justice.
“You would have more dead police, because this is rural policing,” she said. “People handle shit themselves. So, you know, I had a member call me and they were petrified to be on the road. They thought they were going to get killed because he was public that he was a policeman.”
MacCallum is also expected to testify today regarding the decisions regarding public communications.