An insider’s view of a police standoff in Fairview was too tempting for many to resist last month, when a tattoo artist allegedly armed with a knife took to Facebook Live to broadcast his ramblings.
According to a search warrant police got for 1 Ashdale Ave., Neal Ryan Conroy allegedly threatened two officers with a knife when they tried to remove him from the building at the request of the woman who lives there and owns the tattoo parlour.
The warrant notes the presence of a live stream coming from inside the business and residence on December 2.
But what it doesn’t record is the thousands of people who tuned-in to listen to Conroy’s tirades from behind the barricades, or the thousands of people commenting on the situation from outside the police tape.
“Social media has definitely changed news,” one commenter says on one of Conroy’s live videos from inside the standoff that has been watched 13,000 times.
Other Facebook Live videos Conroy made while holed-up inside the dimly-lit building were watched tens of thousands of times.
“Turn on the lights so we can watch you get tased,” says another commenter.
“This is the most excitement I’ve had in weeks,” says yet another.
Some of the digital rubber-neckers urged Conroy to give himself up to police, while others encouraged him and told him to stay strong.
And people outside the scene horned-in on the action with their own Facebook Live streams, giving anyone who cared to click a clear view of what police were doing outside.
“Cops made the people across the street with the outside live feed shut it down. The (sheep) listened to the police,” said yet another commenter.
The star of the show
For Stephen Perrott, a psychology professor at Mount St. Vincent University who used to be a Halifax cop, there’s no question that negotiating with someone barricaded inside a building is made more difficult if that same person is posting live video to the Internet.
“Clearly it’s got to effect the negotiations because in most negotiations there’s usually total isolation of the person that’s initiating the standoff,” Perrott said.
“They’re usually by themselves. But even if there’s more than one person, the situation is completely isolated, and so the police, obviously, are going to work on that angle. They’re going to try to negotiate with the person and they’re going to have take into account, to an extent, that the person is going to feel alone.”
If, as in the case in Fairview case last month, a person is getting multiple streams of information, with some encouraging them not to give themselves up, “that’s going to have a tremendous psychological effect on the negotiations,” Perrott said.
“Instead of being all alone in the negotiations, the person is suddenly centre-stage and it’s very easy for him to get a very inflated sense of self.”
That makes the situation more volatile for police, he said. “And unpredictability is always going to be more dangerous.”
Negotiators are trying to foster a sense of empathy with a person involved in a standoff, Perrott said.
“Without making promises they can’t keep … the police are going to want the person they’re negotiating with to kind of think, in some ways, that they’re on the same team,” he said. “And that’s going to be hugely compromised if somebody’s popping in (via social media) and saying, ‘Hey man, you’re doing great. Don’t give up.’”
If a person involved in a standoff with police chooses to broadcast live on the Internet, that gives police access to “lots of information that they would not otherwise have about what’s happening within these types of events,” said Jamie Livingston, a criminology professor at Saint Mary’s University.
Standoffs could last longer when people at the heart of them know they have an audience, he said.
“There’s certainly the possibility that could be true, especially if their objective is notoriety or to get some sort of message out to the masses,” Livingston said. “Then it potentially could make things more enticing for them for things to last longer. But I’m not sure whether or not it will extend the duration of these types of events, or if these events won’t be able to be solved in a prompt or efficient manner. It’s really hard to say.”
The insider’s view of a standoff could serve as a case study for what police techniques were useful, he said.
“You can watch in real-time and see what worked well and what might have escalated the situation,” Livington said. “So it’s possible the technology is useful in some ways, as much as it makes the situation more difficult.”
The thousands of people who watched the standoff unfold live on the Internet do not surprise him.
“Crime shows are the most popular shows on TV and the extension of it is sort of the reality version of it, which is more enticing for people because it’s not actors,” Livingston said.
“There’s a whole bunch of entertainment value for people to be able to get an insider view of things that they normally wouldn’t have access to … Cops was a popular show and this is sort of the evolution of that – that it is live. Also, for people living in the community, they get to see what’s going on in the community, which is interesting.”
The phenomenon is akin to first-person shooter video games that allow people to participate in criminal events, he said.
“This parallels that in many ways,” Livingston said. “You feel like you’re part of the event and it gives some sort of excitement.”
“Somebody is always recording something”
Halifax Regional Police wouldn’t speak to the unusual case directly, but they agreed to discuss, in general, what they’re trying to achieve when they’re involved in an armed standoff.
“The role of the negotiator is to peacefully and safely resolve an ongoing incident,” said Inspector Reid McCoombs.
“In a nutshell, that’s it. They’re looking for a resolution to whatever incident it is that they’ve been called to.”
While he was loath to describe police tactics, McCoombs said negotiators usually try to build some trust with the person involved in an armed standoff.
“Part of their repertoire or part of how they operate is relationship building, communication, discussion, not in a rush, using time as your ally to get to the peaceful resolution,” he said.
That’s pretty much what happened in Conroy’s situation, save a few smashed doors at the tattoo shop. About 17 hours after police arrived at the scene, they arrested him and took him into custody.
But the technology Conroy employed to broadcast to the world while he was in there raises some interesting questions about how police may handle standoffs in the future.
“It’s actually a double-edged sword,” McCoombs said.
Negatives for the police include folks from outside the standoff being able to communicate with the person they’re trying to convince to surrender peacefully, as well as those who point their own smart phones at the cops, giving the person barricaded inside a view of their actions and what they may be planning.
“But on the positive side, it actually gives us different opportunities to communicate with the person as well, whether its via text, via Facebook — whatever,” McCoombs said.
“In days gone by, we would be limited to a land line telephone, and/or a megaphone, or yelling through the door.”
That said, McCoombs concedes it’s a new challenge for police to try and stay focused on a peaceful resolution with all the static that comes from external influences of social media.
“To me it’s indicative of just our day and age with camera phones, in general, and policing,” he said. “Pretty much everything we would do out on the road and everywhere is now captured on video. Somebody always has a smart phone. Somebody is always recording something. So it’s just the reality of our new world that we have to deal with.”
McCoombs, who oversees specialized HRP units including the crisis negotiating team, wouldn’t say if police have the means to turn off Internet access for someone involved in a standoff.
“There’s all kinds of different technology out there and I guess all I’ll say on that is we’re trying to stay current with technology as well on our end,” he said.
On the flip side, police can only ask people watching a standoff unfold to stop broadcasting their movements.
“We live in free country,” McCoombs said. “People have the right to take a picture in the public. They have the right to video things in the public. They have a right to post them. That’s just the country we live in. We certainly sometimes will ask people to not do things. But, again, that’s an ask. Unless you’re committing a crime, I don’t have the authority to stop you.”
If someone involved in a standoff uses a live video feed to spy on the police outside, “we may lose an element of surprise,” McCoombs said.
“Then there are officer safety concerns that come with that. Is it putting officers in harm’s way by somebody knowing exactly what we’re doing? So those are our concerns with that, but it’s the balance of that with people’s civil rights.”
He pointed to the June 2014 Moncton shootings where Justin Bourque killed three RCMP officers and severely injured another two, launching a 28-hour long manhunt for the 24-year-old gunman.
“The RCMP in Moncton had asked everybody to turn on their back lights; turn on their porch lights so the backyards were sort of lit up and to give extra visibility,” McCoombs said.
“It’s that same sort of thing. We have no authority to tell people to do it. But we ask.”
Sometimes people will ignore those types of police requests, he said, but that’s rare.
“We tend to get a really high compliance rate,” McCoombs said. “I think it’s because we don’t do it often.”
Perrott, the psychology prof, recalls an incident when he was a rookie cop called to check on a woman who had overdosed.
When his partner banged on the door of the woman’s Creighton Street abode, there was no answer.
“The next thing I know, his big foot came up and he kicked the door in,” Perrott said. “I thought, ‘Holy shit. What’s the law that says you can do that?’”
When they got inside, the woman was comatose. They got her on to a gurney and an ambulance took her to hospital.
Perrott later questioned his more senior partner about the legal position he used to justify kicking in the door. “He said, ‘There’s no law. It’s just common sense.’ He said, ‘Really it’s the common law that you have. You’re justified on the basis of saving a life in that situation.’”
The same would go for shutting off Internet access of someone involved in a standoff with police if it looks like it might be perpetuating the situation, Perrott said.
“You don’t need a specific law or a warrant or policies to do that sort of thing,” Perrott said. “But it’s quite different when you’re telling people standing around the house that they’re not allowed to videotape it, because they are.”
When he became a police officer 28 years ago, McCoombs never imagined he’d be dealing with such a huge technological leap.
“We didn’t have cellphones, let alone smart phones,” he said. “There’s no way my mind would ever allow me to envision this.”
And he doesn’t know what’s next in terms of technology that could disrupt policing.
“All I can say is there will always be changes in technology and as a police department we have to do our best to stay up to date with that and work within our new realities.”