That’s how much time passed during which a written tweet sat on a computer screen before someone pressed “tweet” to make it public.
The prepared tweet read: “#Colchester: [perpetrator’s name] may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There’s 1 difference btwn his car and our RCMP vehicles: the car #. The suspect’s car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911 immediately.” A photo of the car was attached.
The perpetrator, who the Halifax Examiner refers to as GW, had murdered 13 people and injured two others Saturday night, April 18, 2020, in Portapique, Nova Scotia.
By 7:30am on Sunday morning, the RCMP were aware that the killer had not been found and the he might have a car that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser. At 8am, Halifax police obtained a photo of the fake car and immediately sent it to the RCMP.
It took more than an hour and a half, but a draft tweet with a photo of the car was written.
At 9:40, the tweet’s author, Cpl. Jennifer Clarke, sent the wording of the draft tweet to Staff Sergeant Addie MacCallum, her liaison in the field, for approval, but just then — the time stamp on the radio dispatch is 9:41 — MacCallum was pulled away to respond to a new murder in Wentworth: Lillian Campbell had been shot dead by someone driving what looked like an RCMP cruiser.
Clarke quickly became aware that MacCallum was on the Campbell call, so she emailed Staff Sergeant Steve Halliday at 9:45 for his approval: “Steve — need approval asap. Addie is 10-6… Thanks Jen.” “10-6” means “busy.”
Halliday’s response isn’t recorded in the publicly released documents, but he evidently approved the tweet, as at 9:49 Clarke emailed her boss, Lia Scanlan, to get Scanlan’s approval. The subject line of the email read “APPROVED by Steve Halliday: Tweet for approval — immediate pls: 22B11 description.” The body of the email read: “Pls note they are responding to another incident, suspect is on the run/ Tweet is approved. Jen.”
Scanlan did not respond.
So there that draft tweet sat, unsent on Clarke’s computer.
Five minutes went by.
“I was pacing the floor,” Clarke told the Mass Casualty Commission Tuesday. “It was the longest 27 minutes of my life.”
During those 27 minutes, community care assistant Kristen Beaton was driving between appointments. Earlier in the morning, she had been occasionally checking her phone, speaking and texting with her husband Nick Beaton about events in Portapique the night before; Nick was watching social media and updating Kristen about the search for the killer. At 9:37 Nick forwarded Kristen an RCMP Facebook post that named and described the killer. Their last conversation was a two-minute call that began at 9:41.
Just before 10am, Kristen was on Plains Road, pulled off to the side of the road, perhaps to check her phone. The killer pulled up in the fake police cruiser, got out, and shot her dead.
Also during those 27 minutes, Heather O’Brien, a nurse, was out on a drive. Earlier in the morning, she had learned that someone she was close to was murdered in Portapique. She needed to clear her head, so used the excuse of driving to pick up coffee for her adult daughters, who both live in the Masstown area. Through the morning, Heather had been on the phone with her colleague Leona Allen six times, talking about Portapique and their work duties. At 9:37, Heather texted Leona a photo of the suspected killer.
Leona called Heather a seventh time, at 9:59:49.
Heather told Leona that she had pulled to the side of the road on Plains Road. She heard gunshots — probably the nearby murder of Kristen Beaton — then Heather saw a police officer approaching her. Leona heard Heather scream, then three gunshots. The call lasted 35 seconds. Heather was dead.
At 10:13, and again at 10:15, Clarke emailed Scanlan repeating her request for approval of the draft tweet. Finally, the tweet was approved.
Clarke pressed “tweet” at 10:17.
Was Clarke told not to tweet the photo?
At 9:50, just one minute after Clarke sent the email to Scanlan seeking approval of the tweet, the RCMP’s Emergency Alert Team (ERT) and many other officers were dispatched to the Fisher residence on Highway 4. Adam Fisher and Carole Fisher had each called 911 to say the killer was on their property.
Coincidently, at 9:50 Truro Police Chief Dave MacNeil emailed Chief Superintended Chris Leather, offering the services of the Truro Police to the RCMP. At 10:00 Leather emailed back: “It sounds like we may [have] the suspect pinned down in Wentworth. Will be in touch.”
Leather was apparently referring to the ERT presence at the Fisher residence.
At 10:04 someone at the RCMP tweeted out that “#RCMPNS is advising people to avoid Hwy 4 near Hidden Hilltop Campground in #Glenholme. [Perpetrator’s name] is in the area. Please stay inside your homes and lock your doors. #Portapique.”
The author of that tweet has not been publicly identified. Clarke said it wasn’t her. Scanlan’s hand-written notes indicate that during this period she was on the phone with Leather discussing “what I need to do right now to get info out,” and that’s why she didn’t see Clarke’s email.
Lawyers for the victims’ families suggested that, thinking the killer was “pinned down” at the Fisher’s residence, the order came down to not release the photo of the fake police car, but in their testimony before the Mass Casualty Commission, Clarke and Scanlan each categorically denied that such an order was issued.
But the killer was not “pinned down”; he had eluded the ERT at the Fishers’ house and continued on to Plains Road.
Clarke retired earlier this year, and in January Scanlan became the strategic advisor to the Acting Commander, who at that time was Chris Leather.
A culture of hesitation
The RCMP describes itself as a paramilitary organization, and takes pride in that officers in the field can make independent decisions and take action according to their training. Those officers are on the ground, after all, and have firsthand knowledge of the situations they’re responding to. Relying on direction from distant commanding officers without that knowledge can hobble quick responses, which may endanger lives.
We’ve seen no better illustration of that independent decision-making than the actions taken by the first three RCMP officers to respond to Portapique. Stuart Beselt, Adam Merchant, and Aaron Patton were constables — the lowest rung of the RCMP hierarchy — and there was no officer at the scene. Yet, to their training, they quickly organized themselves into an Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) team and entered Portapique on foot in pursuit of the killer.
The trio’s actions that night have been scrutinized throughout the proceedings of the Mass Casualty Commission, and certainly there are lessons to be learned. But no one has faulted their bravery or their decision-making. Their IARD training involved forming teams of four in an indoor setting like a school shooting, and on the fly the three adapted, forming a team of three in an outdoor rural setting. In contrast to the terrible non-action by police in Uvalde, the Portapique responders put themselves at great risk by making their primary aim stopping the shooter.
It was the epitome of officers on the ground taking independent action to respond to an emergency.
Similarly, Heidi Stevenson, also a constable and not a ranking officer, made decisive and independent command decisions on the morning of April 19, quickly and intelligently directing officers to set up roadblocks at every crossing of the Shubenacadie River, anticipating that the killer might head towards Halifax, and she changed and adapted the positions of those officers as new information came in.
In contrast, Cpl. Jennifer Clarke did not take independent action.
Like the responders in Portapique, Clarke knew there was a killer on the loose, and in fact had just killed Lillian Campbell while he was driving a fake police car. Clarke knew the public was at tremendous risk. She had the photo of the fake car, had taken great care in drafting a tweet to alert the public, and then… hesitated.
Clarke had embedded herself in an impossibly complex decision tree.
It makes sense that messaging to the public be approved by people in the field — situations like active shooters can be dynamic and fluid, and as things change, the wrong public message could be deadly. But Staff Sergeant Addie MacCallum, who had been tasked with liaising with Clarke on the language of the public message, told the commission yesterday that he assumed that task was completed with an 8am phone call with Clarke. Clarke’s subsequent need for direct approval of the draft tweet from MacCallum seems overly cautious, but it fits within the framework of needing approval from the field.
But once she got that approval from the field — from Halliday — Clarke again hesitated, feeling she needed secondary approval from her civilian boss, Lia Scanlan, the director of the Strategic Communications unit.
Clarke understood that seeking Scanlan’s approval for important public releases was more necessary than for run-of-the mill road closure and accident scene notifications, which she could issue without Scanlan’s approval. “It’s not written down,” Clarke testified, “it was understood — the higher the profile, the more approval is needed.”
However, Scanlan told the commission that she didn’t need to approve Clarke’s tweet, but she didn’t explicitly convey that to Clarke.
Scanlan said while her approval wasn’t necessary, ” I can appreciate why Clarke waited for my approval.”
Scanlan said that when Clarke emailed asking for her approval, she was juggling two phones and involved in multiple conversations with Leather and others. “The real answer is I wasn’t sitting in front of my computer,” she gave as reason for missing Clarke’s request.
Asked to consider the complex decision tree in place to get out a single tweet, Scanlan acknowledged there was “miscommunication” that morning, and “there are a lot of judgment calls.”
Twitter as public information platform
Scanlan told the commission that she personally decided that the Strategic Communications division would move away from press releases to media as the primary means of communicating with the public. Instead, Strat Comms would use social media.
As Scanlan explained, social media has the benefit of reaching more people immediately, and unfiltered by the news organizations. Those news organizations, however, could follow the RCMP’s social media accounts and get the information that way.
Initially, the RCMP’s social media efforts were focused on Facebook, but when Twitter came along, that platform became the primary means of communicating with the public. Scanlan said Twitter amplifies messaging quickly.
That singular focus on Twitter caused several problems, however.
There were parallel efforts among Emergency Management Office managers to get the RCMP directly connected to the Alert Ready system, such that commanders in the field could issue alerts in emergency situations — including mass shootings. Reports raising that possibility date back at least a decade before 2020, and some landed directly on Scanlan’s desk, but it was never made a priority. As a result, when the mass murders of April 2020 occurred, none of the commanding officers — Al Carroll, Brian Rehill, Bruce Briers, and Jeff West — even knew that using the Alert Ready was a possibility.
Secondly, even though Twitter was de facto the primary vehicle for public communications, Strategic Communications employees did not have a good understanding of the platform. Neither Scanlan nor Clarke used Twitter outside of their work.
There was a painful exchange during Scanlan’s testimony in which she explained that she didn’t know if the public could respond to tweets, and she didn’t understand how hashtags work, or that tweets could be threaded.
Scanlan acknowledged that not everyone uses Twitter — she doesn’t use it herself — and that there are other limitations to the platform in terms of notifying the public in an emergency. But she rejected the suggestion that a Strat Comms employee could simply call a radio or TV station to alert the public during an emergency. “That’s not done,” she testified.