Issuing alert about N.S. gunman would have led to more dead police: RCMP official

·4 min read

HALIFAX — A senior Nova Scotia RCMP official says she has no regrets that an emergency alert was not sent during a killer's 13-hour rampage in 2020, saying doing so would have led to more dead police officers.

Lia Scanlan, director of strategic communications for the Nova Scotia RCMP, told investigators for the public inquiry into the mass shooting she was "glad" there was no provincewide alert warning about a gunman driving a replica police cruiser.

A transcript of her February interview was released Tuesday at public hearings into the April 2020 killings of 22 people, including RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson.

If there had been an Alert Ready message broadcast on radio, television and smartphones, Scanlan speculated, "My gut? You would have more dead police officers, because this is rural policing."

Scanlan said that in a small town like Portapique, where the killing started, people take things into their own hands. Had the public known the shooter was impersonating an RCMP officer, that information would have put RCMP members in harm's way, she said.

“I had a (RCMP) member call me and they were petrified to be on the road," she continued. "They thought they were going to get killed because of it being public."

Truro, N.S., police Chief Dave MacNeil, however, told the inquiry on Monday that an Alert Ready warning would have saved lives.

The RCMP instead used social media to provide updates to Nova Scotians, a decision that has been criticized by family of some victims.

Scanlan said in her interview that Twitter and Facebook are effective. “We’ve always communicated on social media. It’s been a best practice ... and show me a better practice in policing? There isn’t one,” she told inquiry interviewers.

Almost 10 hours after the gunman killed his first victim, the Mounties issued the first tweet indicating there was an "active shooter situation" in Portapique at 8:02 a.m. But the tweet did not mention the suspect's name or anything about his getaway car. As well, it did not make it clear that he was on the move.

Relatives of some of the victims have argued that had the RCMP provided earlier public warnings with that key information, several lives could have been saved.

At 8:04 a.m., the RCMP issued an internal alert to its members stating the suspect was potentially using a fully marked Ford Taurus police cruiser and could be anywhere in the province. The same message was then sent to all police departments in the province. At 8:54 a.m., the RCMP sent a tweet that included a photo identifying 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman as the suspect, but there was still no mention of his car.

This was followed by another tweet at 10:04 a.m., which was after RCMP communications got approval to share details about the replica cruiser. This tweet warned people to avoid Highway 4 in Glenholme, N.S., but did not mention the vehicle.

Asked why this piece of information was omitted from the tweet, Scanlan said it was written by one of her communications staff, who she thinks was unaware of the replica cruiser.

Working from home, the communications staff were “not on a conference call where everyone has the same information,” Scanlan said, because they were busy making calls and answering calls from officers. She said the five members of her communications team were each permitted to tweet independently, and at least three of her staff were tasked with posting on social media on the morning of April 19.

It wasn't until 10:17 a.m. that the RCMP tweeted a photo of the vehicle.

Scanlan also faced questions about why an 11:06 a.m. RCMP tweet misidentified the type of vehicle the gunman was driving after abandoning his replica cruiser. Scanlan said that she did not write the tweet but suggested that there wasn’t time to check for absolute accuracy.

If no lives were at risk, time could be taken to verify information about the vehicle, she said. But in a situation such as the mass shooting, “they could have said purple airplane and it would have gone out."

Scanlan is scheduled to testify before the public inquiry on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

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