RCMP officer was 'pacing the floor' waiting for tweet approval during N.S. mass shooting

·6 min read
Jennifer Clarke, a retired RCMP corporal, provides testimony on Tuesday regarding a tweet that was posted during the Nova Scotia mass shooting related to the gunman's replica police cruiser. Clarke, who retired in April 2022, was a public information officer during the mass shooting.  (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Jennifer Clarke, a retired RCMP corporal, provides testimony on Tuesday regarding a tweet that was posted during the Nova Scotia mass shooting related to the gunman's replica police cruiser. Clarke, who retired in April 2022, was a public information officer during the mass shooting. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The RCMP officer who sent out the tweet about the gunman's replica cruiser during the Nova Scotia mass shooting says there was an agonizing half-hour wait for the final approval to post it for the public.

"I was pacing the floor. It was the longest 27 minutes of my life," Jennifer Clarke, a now retired corporal, testified Tuesday at a Mass Casualty Commission hearing in Truro, N.S.

"I don't know what else I would've done. There was a lot going on there in the background. Look, I wish I could've gotten it out earlier. I don't know if it could've saved someone."

In April 2020, Clarke was part of the Nova Scotia RCMP's communications team. She was called to help out shortly after 8 a.m. AT and started working from home, gathering information about what was happening in Colchester County, she told the inquiry.

The previous evening, a gunman had killed 13 neighbours in Portapique, N.S., and proceeded to kill nine more people the following day. He travelled nearly 200 kilometres through rural Nova Scotia, most of it in a mock cruiser.

CBC
CBC

Clarke explained that after receiving direction around 9 a.m. from her civilian boss, Lia Scanlan, to draft a tweet about the cruiser, she had to figure out how to best present the information in a way to differentiate the shooter's vehicle from actual cruisers responding that Sunday morning.

To do so, Clarke said she called detachments to ensure there were no other actual Mountie cars in the province with the same number displayed as the gunman's vehicle.

'Thinking about vigilantism'

"You have to check every detail. We can't be wrong," she testified.

"I was thinking about vigilantism; I was concerned that if I got it wrong, I could be making some of our members a target, and I didn't, obviously, want to do that. So I needed to make it clear to anyone looking at that Twitter feed how what I was showing was different from the rest of the police cars."

Clarke testified she was aware the gunman's car had a push bar but didn't know how many actual cruisers had the same equipment. The public inquiry has heard that in April 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP only had four vehicles with push bars. Three were SUVs and one was a Taurus based in Kingston, N.S., in the Annapolis Valley.

"From my experience with the response to the incident in Moncton, I knew that police cars had come from all over the province to help with that. So I didn't know which units were in the area and which units may have had push bars," Clarke said.

RCMP Nova Scotia Twitter
RCMP Nova Scotia Twitter

Clarke said over the next 40 minutes, she worked as fast as she could to confirm the information and had several phone conversations with commanders and her colleague, Cpl. Lisa Croteau, who was doing media interviews outside the Great Village, N.S., fire hall where a command centre was set up.

Clarke also had to go through the process of emailing herself the photo of the cruiser so she could use an editing program on her computer to crop and create a graphic on the photo she ultimately tweeted.

"It seems like a really long time … all I know I was going steady. I was trying to verify things," she said.

By 9:40 a.m., she sent her draft tweet to a senior officer for approval. Around that time, 911 calls had come in about a new shooting on a road in Wentworth, N.S., which the Mounties have said was the first indication the gunman had resumed killing. Officers rushed to the scene.

Realizing the first person she emailed was busy, Clarke sought and obtained approval from Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday. But that wasn't the final hurdle.

High-profile incidents require further approval, Clarke testified, saying she still needed the go-ahead from Scanlan. Receiving that approval took about a half-hour. She said she sent three emails but doesn't remember if she called.

"I needed Lia [Scanlan] to know what I was doing because I knew she was communicating with senior management," she said.

Needed additional approval 

In the meantime, another one of her colleagues had sent a tweet about the gunman being sighted in the Glenholme, N.S., area, following reports he had gone to a home there.

Clarke said Scanlan was her point of contact in the chain of command and it wouldn't have been appropriate or productive to "go rogue" to try to get approval from someone else.

When asked why Halliday's approval wasn't sufficient for posting, Clarke said she also wanted to ensure the suspect wasn't in custody given the risk that a tweet about the cruiser could pose to RCMP members.

"Things were changing very quickly that morning and I wanted to make sure nothing had changed that would prevent me, or make it difficult or challenging or risky for us to send that tweet at that time," Clarke said.

WATCH | Mountie paced as she waited for approval to send tweet during N.S. shooting: 

Tara Miller, who represents a relative of Kristen Beaton, asked Clarke about the order of the tweets and whether it would have made more sense to tweet out the photo of the car prior to the gunman's face. Beaton, who was pregnant, had been active on social media throughout that Sunday morning.

She posted on Facebook cautioning her colleagues to be careful given the situation in Portapique, N.S. At 9:37 a.m., her husband sent her the RCMP's Facebook post identifying the gunman. She was killed around 10 a.m.

Clarke said her boss, Scanlan, made the decision about the priority of the tweets. Scanlan is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

'100 per cent' want earlier approval

Miller asked if, given that Beaton was plugged into social media, whether it was "fair to say that it very well could have been relevant and helpful for other people to allow them to have that information [about the cruiser] as quickly as possible?"

A lawyer representing the Attorney General, Patricia MacPhee, objected and said the line of questioning related to Beaton's social media activity was "frankly abusive." Chief Commissioner Michael MacDonald agreed it wasn't appropriate.

Tim Krochak/Reuters
Tim Krochak/Reuters

In response, Miller said since Clarke had worked in the RCMP's communications unit for years, she asked her to comment on whether she would have changed anything about getting the information out to the public.

Clarke said she "100 per cent" wanted to get the information out earlier and agreed she would've liked to get approval earlier.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Miller said it appeared Clarke was working in a silo and the need for Scanlan's approval led to a "critical delay in time" that was relevant in her client's death. Miller said she hoped the testimony and discussions of the RCMP's processes would lead to recommendations that will prevent similar situations.

Supt. Dustine Rodier, who managed the RCMP's Operational Communications Centre during the mass shooting, and Glenn Mason, the force's emergency planning co-ordinator, were also testifying Tuesday.

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