A Fredericton criminologist says the RCMP's handling of communication during a reported shooting in Moncton this week shows they have not fully learned from past mistakes.
Schools were locked down for hours Thursday and residents were advised to stay in their homes and lock their doors after the RCMP issued an Alert Ready message saying they were investigating reports of shots fired in Centennial Park.
They then posted several tweets asking residents to avoid the Centennial Park area, and then another Alert Ready message just after 6 p.m. saying the operation had ended and residents could "return to normal activities."
No further information was provided.
"The RCMP are still slow to learn from past mistakes ... in terms of when to send out a public alert notices and how much information to send out to the public," Michael Boudreau, a professor of criminal justice at St. Thomas University, said Friday.
The challenge of social media
Boudreau acknowledged that police face many difficult decisions in active shooting investigations.
But he said the lessons of incidents such as the tragic mass killing in Portapique, N.S., last year and, more recently, a standoff in Fredericton, don't appear to have taken hold as fully as they should have — and the lack of information provided to the public Thursday only highlighted that.
The problem is that social media has made it much more difficult to do that, and both the RCMP and many municipal police forces have been slow to learn how to respond to and manage social media.
In the absence of information, social media users will start "spinning their own take" on things. Meanwhile, the suspect police are seeking may also be monitoring police tweets, so police have to guard against revealing any information that will jeopardize their investigation.
"So it's a difficult situation," Boudreau said. "It's hard for the police to stay on top of all of this."
Moncton's history is also a complicating factor, Boudreau said, noting the memory of the 2014 fatal shooting of three RCMP officers and wounding of two others still haunts its citizens.
That shooting was the first thing Boudreau thought of when he heard the news Thursday of the lockdown in Moncton.
"And I'm in Fredericton," he said. "So I can only imagine the kind of fear, anxiety that was generated within the Moncton community when this message went out. … But the less information you put out just heightens public anxiety and public fear."
Kids huddled on floor below window line
Meanwhile, several residents said Friday they were generally satisfied with the RCMP's handling of the hours-long incident, although they don't see why more information can't be released now that the lockdown has been lifted.
Andy Scott has three children in Hillcrest Middle School, one of six schools in the area that were placed in lockdown or hold-and-secure.
Scott was at home when the RCMP Alert Ready message went out advising residents to stay indoors Thursday morning — but by then he'd already received an email from his kids' school advising him the school was in lockdown.
"I know the school's procedures for this type of thing, and I knew the teachers would do a fantastic job of keeping the kids safe," Scott said.
In hindsight, I would have like to have known at least some detail of what was going on. - Andy Scott, parent of kids who were in lockdown
The students were "on the floor most of the day," sitting below the window line, he said.
His kids told him they were scared and nervous, but they're OK.
"They've practised this in drills, so it's not an abnormal thing for them," he said, and the teachers made a point of making Friday "a fun day," with pizza and games.
Scott said he thought at the time that the RCMP handled communications adequately, but now that the lockdown is over, he wonders why just a little more information wasn't shared.
"In hindsight, I would have liked to have known at least some detail of what was going on," he said.
"People I talked to really didn't know what was going on … so if we would have been given at least some sense of the scope of the situation, that would have been nice to know."
'I'm OK with how things were handled'
Bettina Moores, who has a son in Hillcrest Middle School, seconded Scott's praise for the school's teachers.
"The staff is amazing," she said. "I'd like to applaud all the teachers who had to go through yesterday's incident, because really it's them that make that experience somewhat less frightening for our children."
But Moores disagreed that more information should have been provided during the lockdown.
With the memory of the 2014 shootings still fresh — both Moores and Scott brought that tragedy up in their reflection on Thursday's events — Moores said Moncton residents are inclined to have faith in the process during such situations.
"I'm OK with how things went and how they were handled," she said. "I understand how they handled it, and for good reason. I think any of us on social media can see how quickly something can be twisted and misconstrued as posts evolve."
Moores said the possibility that the target of the police investigation is also on social media is also a danger in terms of what information police provide.
"In these cases, less is more," she said. "Any information other than stay indoors, keep your doors locked, be vigilant … I wouldn't need to know much more than that."
But now that the lockdown is over, she said she'd like to be put at ease.
"This is where I'd like to see more information, why is this still under investigation but we're not still searching for this person."
In an interview Friday, New Brunswick RCMP Sgt. Jean-Francois Martel said police officers are still at the scene processing evidence.
"We're very confident that the suspect is no longer on site," he said. "That being said, we're still investigating."
Asked about the lack of detailed information provided to the public on Thursday, Martel noted "we have to act with caution here."
"It's a live investigation, there's quite a bit of information coming in … it's moving a lot," he said. "That's one of the reasons why updates are not always every 10 minutes or so."