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Head of RCMP communications during N.S. mass shooting testifies about delays, lessons learned

The former director of communications for the RCMP, who previously told the public inquiry she didn’t have regrets about the way communications were handled during the mass shootings of April 2020, testified about room for improvement while reflecting on how long it took to tweet about the gunman’s replica cruiser. 

Lia Scanlan was the civilian director of the strategic communications unit for the Mounties in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020.

Scanlan told investigators with the Mass Casualty Commission in an interview last fall that she was “super proud” about the way her team handled communications with the public during the 13-hour rampage that saw a gunman in a replica RCMP cruiser kill 22 people, including a Mountie and a pregnant woman. 

In the September 2021 interview, she said after thinking about it extensively she “wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Her tone appeared more restrained, and at times she became tearful, as she answered questions posed by commission counsel during a public hearing in Truro, N.S., Wednesday morning. The previous day, one of her team members, now retired Cpl. Jen Clarke, testified about waiting nearly half an hour for Scanlan’s approval to post the message. 

RCMP Nova Scotia tweeted the photo of the gunman’s replica police cruiser at 10:17 a.m. on the morning of April 19, 2020. (RCMP Nova Scotia Twitter)

Roger Burrill, a lawyer for the inquiry, asked Scanlan her thoughts on a director’s approval delaying tweets. 

“I think we should try to do anything to reduce slowing anything down, so I think that certainly that’s an area having gone back and looked critically at this incident specifically, improvements can be made there,” she said. “The goal is timeliness and public safety trumps all else so I do feel improvements can be made there.”

Communication has been a point of contention for families of the victims, who have raised concerns about the force’s choice to communicate information exclusively through Twitter and Facebook rather than via the provincial Alert Ready system.

They have also been vocal about how long it took to inform the public that the gunman was driving the replica cruiser and wearing a police uniform.

Waiting for operational approval

Scanlan said she learned of a police operation in Portapique, N.S., around 6 a.m. on April 19. Over the hours that followed, she worked from home and spoke to half a dozen senior officers about what was happening. She also assigned members of her team tasks — from finding a venue for a press conference to tweeting about the cruiser. 

Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum previously told commission investigators he sent Scanlan photos of the gunman and his vehicle shortly after 8 a.m. after he was tasked with working with her to get a message out to the public. 

Clarke eventually posted a photo of the cruiser to Twitter at 10:17 a.m. on April 19. During her testimony on Tuesday, she said she wouldn’t have done so without the go-ahead from Scanlan. 

Scanlan testified she did not remember when she first saw the photo of the cruiser — only that she was aware investigators were looking into whether the gunman was using it. She was also insistent that despite MacCallum’s statements he’d talked to her about what information could “be crafted,” she was not told to release the photo of the car and only had direction to tweet about the gunman, which she did at 8:54 a.m. 

RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke provided testimony regarding the delay of a Twitter message with a photo of the gunman’s replica police cruiser on Tuesday. Clarke, who retired in April 2022, was a public information officer during the mass shooting. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Burrill asked in the event she had the photo of the cruiser at 8:10, why she didn’t share it on social media within minutes. 

“At that point in time, my understanding was the decision had not been made operationally,” Scanlan said, adding her understanding was the command team was considering factors such as the risk to officer safety.

“I wasn’t making any assumptions… I was not asked to send out the photo.” 

She also said that she did not bring up the cruiser when she spoke to Chief Supt. Chris Leather, the head of criminal operations, and her plans to share information with the public.

Clarke assigned to tweet 

She never explained in her testimony when she felt like operational approval was given, but at 9:04 a.m. she did assign Cpl. Jen Clarke to craft a tweet and get approval from MacCallum. 

She said she did not see Clarke’s 9:49 a.m. email seeking Scanlan’s final approval because she was on both her personal and work phones at the time and didn’t have her email open in front of her. She said it wasn’t until after she’d convened a conference call with her team about 20 minutes later that she read it, and Clarke’s two follow up emails. She verbally told her to post it. 

Scanlan agreed it was “absolutely a bottle neck” but said she didn’t expect Clarke to seek her approval and missed the messages. 

She testified “standard operating procedures” would prevent delays sending out future tweets. 

Wiping away tears, Scanlan asked for a moment to compose herself and said “if I could go back, and have those minutes disappear, I would do anything.”

Later, during cross examination, Sandra McCullough, a lawyer representing families of more than half the victims, asked about the tweet approval process and if it was “fair to say the buck stops” with her. 

“Yes,” Scanlan replied. 

No explanation in previous interviews 

Commission staff interviewed Scanlan in September 2021 and February 2022. She previously did not offer an explanation for the delay sending the cruiser tweet beyond that she attributed the delay to Clarke in her second interview. At the time, Scanlan said she couldn’t “truthfully couldn’t speak” to why it took so long to approve.

In those interviews, Scanlan said she told her team on the morning of April 19 that speed was of the essence in getting information to the public. 

“All rules with regards to Twitter are — they don’t matter right now. It’s information in, information out,” she said. 

Clarke testified Tuesday that the unwritten rules around approval of messaging in a large-scale incident were clear, and was adamant that she could not have sent the tweet without Scanlan’s approval.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

On Wednesday, McCullough asked about the discrepancies between Scanlan’s previous statements to the inquiry and her testimony. 

Scanlan responded that the interview last fall was the first time she went back and relived the morning of the shootings. 

“I’d never looked at my notes, I’d never looked at emails, I was off pure recall,” Scanlan testified. 

She said she does believe the RCMP “ought to learn from” the incident. 

‘Raw emotion’ in earlier interviews

It was only after the second interview that she reviewed the timeline of her team’s actions and other people’s comments to the commission, she testified. 

Before her testimony concluded, the Department of Justice asked the commission if Scanlan could make a final comment. 

Addressing the hearing room in Truro, N.S., Scanlan said she wanted to apologize.

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

In her interviews with the commission, Scanlan echoed the concerns raised by other managers who said broadcasting the information about the replica cruiser via an alert would have led to vigilante justice.

“You would have more dead police officers, 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 that they were going to get killed because of it being public that it was a police officer.”

When asked about whether she stood behind those comments on Wednesday, Scanlan said she did because she’d been picturing her grandfather.

“Rural Nova Scotia, hunter, access to guns. I can tell you he likely would’ve,” she said before trailing off. She said she didn’t have any anecdotal evidence but believes that mentality exists. 

Twitter considered best practice

In both her previous inquiry interviews, Scanlan said messages sent via Twitter were the only reliable way to communicate with the public during an emergency event. 

“We’ve always communicated on social media,” she said. “It’s been a best practice; it’s been defined as a best practice, and show me a better practice in policing. There isn’t one.”

Scanlan testified that even though she personally doesn’t have a Twitter account, it’s still the best form of social media to get out a message quickly because it can be amplified by people sharing posts and media organizations reporting on them. 

She said going forward, it may be best for the RCMP to choose between media releases, Facebook and Twitter as a way to communicate to avoid missed or inconsistent information. 

MacCallum is also expected to testify today regarding decisions around public communications.

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