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Commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald and Kim Stanton observe as commission counsel Jamie Van Wart questions Deputy Commissioner Brian Brennan, appearing by video, at the inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Sept. 9.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The deputy commissioner of the RCMP says the use of emergency alerts during the recent stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan is proof the Mounties have learned crucial lessons about informing the public during mass casualty events.

Testifying at the inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shootings of April, 2020, Deputy Commissioner Brian Brennan said the national force is doing a better job of using the smartphone-based Alert Ready system since the shooting spree that killed 22, including a pregnant woman.

The Mounties were widely criticized for failing to use the emergency alert system during the manhunt for a killer dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica patrol car. Instead, the Nova Scotia RCMP used Twitter to warn the public – a decision families of victims say led to more bloodshed.

Senior RCMP members have testified they thought the alert system was only for severe weather, and it never occurred to them it could be used to warn people about a gunman.

RCMP officers also told the Halifax public inquiry earlier this year they worried that issuing an alert during the 2020 shootings would have caused panic among the public and put officers in danger – an assertion disputed by experts on emergency alert systems.

Deputy Commissioner Brennan, who was tasked with examining that failure in the fallout from the shootings, said it was an error that shouldn’t happen again.

“It wasn’t in their toolbox in terms of using it for an incident such as this,” he told the inquiry.

He pointed to the RCMP’s use of emergency alerts and public updates during their hunt for a stabbing suspect in Saskatchewan this week as a sign the police force is learning from past mistakes.

“Unfortunately, we’ve used what we’ve learned from the mass casualty in Nova Scotia to use Alert Ready very effectively,” he said.

Residents of the James Smith Cree Nation and surrounding communities were woken early Sunday to a dangerous persons alert that the Mounties say was issued 92 minutes after they started receiving calls about multiple stabbings in the area. The Mounties soon after released the names and photos of two suspects.

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The RCMP promised to develop a national policy providing guidance on the use of emergency alerts after the Nova Scotia shootings, and says that it came into force on March 1. The policy calls for the creation of a public alert co-ordinator position in each division, and outlines in broad strokes the circumstances in which a public alert can be used, including active shooter situations, terrorist attacks, riots and natural disasters.

While experts say the RCMP’s communication efforts have not been perfect, the use of emergency alerts and public updates during the search for the stabbing suspects stood in sharp contrast to past manhunts.

“The Saskatchewan RCMP have done a much more thorough and effective job than was the case in Nova Scotia, where the main communication was by Twitter and late in the day,” said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University.

Former RCMP sergeant Bruce Pitt-Payne noted the force was also criticized for not providing more information during the hunt for two suspects accused of killing three people in northern British Columbia in 2019.

After the public attention and criticism in those two previous manhunts, Mr. Pitt-Payne said, RCMP officers would have been “under the gun” to get information out immediately.

Mr. Pitt-Payne said the recent emergency alert is proof that some lessons have been learned.

“It came out in a fairly speedy manner,” he said. “Some people are saying it still took an hour and a bit or whatever to get an alert out. But I want to also caution that incorrect information being broadcast simply to get it out early doesn’t help anybody either.”

There have also been signs of greater co-operation and communication with local police forces than in previous incidents, said Michael Boudreau, criminology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.

“Here we see the RCMP hopefully learning from the mistakes in Nova Scotia and reaching out to Regina city police in particular and asking for assistance,” Mr. Boudreau said.

The sheer number of public alerts police issued as they hunted for stabbing suspect Myles Sanderson actually prompted some complaints, which Brandon University sociology professor Chris Schneider suggests is a positive development for the RCMP.

Yet Mr. Schneider, who has published a book on policing and social media, suggested the Mounties still have a way to go when it comes to engaging the public online, which is where many people go looking for more information when they receive an alert.

Mr. Schneider contrasted the RCMP’s approach, which has involved issuing staid statements, with that of the Regina Police Service, which has used social media to respond to questions and posted video updates of Chief Evan Bray speaking directly to the public.

“By using these social media platforms and communications strategies in ways that are appropriate to the situation and connect and establish the police with the community, that reinforces trust,” he said.

Experts say that social media and instant communication have put new pressures on police, and that more attention needs to be placed on developing policies and investing resources in the area.

“We’ve moved into a new age where just communicating and keeping the rest of the public safe and all these kinds of things is in itself a major task, and that is one that can’t easily be handled by the traditional front-line responders,” Mr. MacKay said.

“So maybe they need to think about whether they have the right people in the communications aspects of their forces these days, and whether they have the resources that they need there.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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