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N.S. mass shooting inquiry: Communications official admits warning was delayed

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WATCH: The woman who was the head of Nova Scotia RCMP’s communications department during the mass shooting is expressing remorse over how the police force communicated with the public. Lia Scanlon took the stand at the mass shooting inquiry, and as Graeme Benjamin reports, she feels there are several ways RCMP can improve – Jun 8, 2022

An RCMP official broke down in tears when she told a public inquiry Wednesday that the unclear practices her team used to alert the public to an active shooter led to a crucial delay during the killer’s 2020 rampage.

“Just know that, if I could go back and have those minutes disappear, I would do anything,” a sobbing Lia Scanlan said when asked if anything should be changed to prevent such delays. “I just need people to know that. And we’ll do better.”

Scanlan’s testimony stands in sharp contrast to what she told inquiry investigators last September, when she insisted she would not have done anything differently on the morning of April 19, 2020 — the second day of a tragedy that would eventually claim 22 lives. At the time, she was director of strategic communications for the Nova Scotia RCMP.

The commission of inquiry has heard the suspect beat and bound his spouse around 10 p.m. on April 18, 2020, before he started killing neighbours and strangers in Portapique, N.S., where he also set fire to several homes. After receiving a series of 911 calls indicating that at least two people had been shot, four Mounties arrived at the scene 10:25 p.m.

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An hour later, it was clear to the RCMP that an active shooter was on the loose, and, according to witness statements, he was driving a vehicle that looked almost identical to a police car — though the Mounties found that key observation hard to believe, the inquiry has heard.

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

At 11:32 p.m., one of Scanlan’s colleagues, RCMP Cpl. Lisa Croteau, posted a relatively innocuous tweet informing the public that police were investigating a “firearms complaint” in Portapique and that residents were asked to remain inside and lock their doors.

The inquiry has heard Croteau was aware of the active shooter but did not include that critical information in the tweet after speaking with a senior RCMP officer.

The Mounties did not issue any other public statements that night, even though the killer had yet to be found, gunshots were reported until 3 a.m. and at least three bodies had been found in the rural enclave.

Asked why the Mounties did not release any information about the killings for more than eight hours, Scanlan suggested there would have been a different outcome had she been there.

“You fix this by ensuring when critical incident commanders are called out, that the director of communications is also part of that call,” she said, noting that it wasn’t the policy at the time.

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Click to play video: 'Former RCMP communications officer testifies during N.S. mass shooting inquiry' Former RCMP communications officer testifies during N.S. mass shooting inquiry
Former RCMP communications officer testifies during N.S. mass shooting inquiry – Jun 7, 2022

Scanlan, who indicated she always had her phone with her, said she was not made aware of what was happening in Portapique until early the next morning when she awoke at 6 a.m. to discover two missed calls from Croteau.

At that point, the Mounties were unaware the killer had escaped undetected from Portapique at 10:45 p.m., driving his replica RCMP vehicle to nearby Debert, N.S., where he spent the night.

Roger Burrill, a lawyer for the commission, asked Scanlan if Croteau’s tweet was inaccurate because it failed to describe what had happened. Scanlan agreed.

Though the RCMP had obtained a photo of the car at 7:27 a.m., a tweet warning the public about the vehicle wasn’t issued until 10:17 a.m. — a delay that has been the focus of much speculation and public outrage, given that four people died during the time frame.

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Scanlan confirmed she posted the RCMP’s second tweet at 8:02 a.m., which stated for the first time that police were investigating an active shooting.

Releasing information

At that time, RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday decided the killer was still at large and driving a replica of a RCMP cruiser, based on evidence he received that morning. He has told the inquiry that’s when he decided the public should be warned about the vehicle.

Halliday has said he asked Scanlan and Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum to draft a statement with photos revealing the killer’s identity and details about his car. “We have to get it out to the public ASAP,” Halliday recalled saying.

Scanlan testified that she could not recall that conversation, but she confirmed that she may have had the car photo by 8:10 a.m.

Read more: Lost emails and unexplained delays: Mass shooting inquiry uncovers new RCMP snags

“I was not told at that time to release the photo of the car,” she said. “I was waiting on operational direction to send the photo out …. It wasn’t being released for officer safety.”

She denied receiving any direction about the photo from more senior Mounties, including Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who is under investigation for his role in controlling the flow of information to the public.

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Previously released evidence has confirmed there was discussion among senior Mounties who believed that releasing information about the vehicle could have caused public panic and put police in danger.

At 8:54 a.m., the RCMP posted a tweet that included a description and a photo of the killer, as well as confirmation that the 51-year-old denture maker was armed and dangerous. There was no mention of the vehicle.

At 8:59 a.m., RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke emailed Scanlan to say she had a copy of the photo of the replica RCMP vehicle. Clarke was told to draft a tweet for MacCallum’s approval, Scanlan testified.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m., the RCMP learned the suspect had resumed killing people in the area as calls came in about bodies found in Wentworth, N.S., and nearby West Wentworth.

The tweet prepared by Clarke received approval at 9:49 a.m. from Halliday. Clarke then sought approval via email from Scanlan, but there was a delay.

Scanlan testified that she did not see Clarke’s email — and two other emails seeking a reply — because she was busy on the phone briefing other colleagues. “I had both phones in my ears and I was doing a lot of things at one time,” she said.

As a result, the tweet with the photo of the replica car wasn’t sent until 10:17 a.m.

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Scanlan stressed that she did not expect Clarke to seek her approval. She confirmed the procedures being followed that day had not been written down.

“I didn’t need to see (the tweet), but I wasn’t clear on that,” Scanlan said. “The explanation is a miscommunication or a lack of communication …. Absolutely a bottleneck.”

Burrill’s final question to Scanlan focused on the delay.

“We have 28 minutes that were unaccounted for, where that (tweet) was approved and where it didn’t get sent out. Do you have any insight as to how things can improve … for that not to ever happen again?”

“Yea, standard operating procedures,” she said, lifting a tissue to her face and sobbing.

During cross-examination, Scanlan said she no longer holds the view that there was nothing she would change about her team’s response. Her voice cracked with emotion as she described how she came to better understand what had occurred after looking at the submissions of other RCMP staff.

“I want people to know that not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and think about the victims and their families and their kids,” she said. “So, know that the delivery or how I came across in my interviews was just raw emotion and I didn’t even know where this would end up.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2022.

— with files from Michael Tutton in Halifax

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