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Police grapple with how to handle threats online

Days after a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises morphed into one of the worst mass shootings in American history, a North Vancouver man allegedly took to Facebook to detail his plot for a similar crime.

The man, Ryan Lewis, was promptly arrested for uttering threats. On the day of his first court appearance, Mr. Lewis told a reporter he had been using the social networking website to vent and "went overboard."

He's not alone – police forces across the country are facing the realization that social media has made it easier to broadcast threats, and officers are devoting more time than ever to investigate such cases.

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That trend has led some to question whether the section of the Criminal Code on uttering threats – a section that makes no mention of ever-evolving technology – is up to the task, or whether it needs to be revised to distinguish between threats made in person and online. Social-media experts are flummoxed that, even in their increasingly Web-centric lives, people can still forget the power of a solitary click.

"We absolutely are [receiving more threat complaints]," said Constable Ian MacDonald, spokesman for the Abbotsford Police Department. "I know – particularly from talking to our youth officers – in that younger demographic, regrettably it's becoming more common."

When it comes to uttering threats through social media, exact numbers are hard to find. Both Abbotsford Police and North Vancouver RCMP – the force that arrested Mr. Lewis – say there's been an increase, but could only speak anecdotally.

In its data, Statistics Canada does not distinguish between threats made in person and through social media.

Neil MacKenzie, a spokesman for the B.C. Crown, said threat charges are frequently laid in conjunction with other charges, such as assault. He said the number of files in which uttering threats was one of the counts has remained largely consistent since 2007 – about 4,000 cases a year.

However, the number of cases in which uttering threats was the only charge has climbed steadily from 476 in 2007 to 545 last year.

"It's certainly fair to conclude that threats that are made through some sort of social media platform would be in [this] group," Mr. MacKenzie said.

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The increase is not confined to the westernmost province. Kevin Brookwell, a Calgary Police spokesman, said his department has been similarly affected, though the increase in case files has not been sharp. "Who knows where we're going to be in five years," he said.

Mr. Lewis, 32, was described by RCMP at the time of his arrest as a threat to public safety. The force said he made "significant death threats on his Facebook page" and expressed support for the mass shooting inside a Colorado movie theatre. He was released from custody on numerous conditions, including that he not access the Internet. The allegations against him have not been proven in court. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Corporal Richard De Jong, spokesman for the North Vancouver RCMP, said uttering-threat investigations increasingly involve people much younger than Mr. Lewis. "It's not uncommon for us to investigate threats made within the school system. The numbers have gone up," he said.

Section 264.1 of the Criminal Code says a person who knowingly utters, conveys or causes another person to receive a threat of death or bodily harm can receive a prison term of up to five years. A person who threatens to damage property, or kill or injure an animal, can receive a prison sentence of up to two years.

Cpl. De Jong said under the Criminal Code "a threat is a threat is a threat," regardless of how it's made.

But Bentley Doyle, of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said some sort of distinction should be drawn between online threats and those made in person.

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"The more specific you get, the easier it is to actually follow through and charge somebody specifically," he said. "If you leave it vague, you raise all these issues about does it really meet what the law was trying to do? That's why you do need it specific. I do think the law has to catch up in all these cases."

Sean Phelan, a spokesman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said there are harassment provisions in the Criminal Code that apply to new technologies such as the Internet.

"Having said that, our government is always open to suggestions from Canadians on ways in which we can improve the Criminal Code and the safety and security of our streets and communities," Mr. Phelan wrote in an e-mail.

Dave Teixeira, owner of communications firm and a social media expert, said people still don't seem to understand that what they post online can end up under the microscope.

"When we use social media, we should understand that it goes beyond our 50 or so followers," he said. "That's what social media is. It's not uttering, it's announcing intentions and standing in the middle of a street with a megaphone."


Social media pitfalls

She was a top high-school student – but you wouldn't have known it from her e-mail address. The young woman's username featured not only the word "sexy" but also a number synonymous with a sexual position.

School is just around the corner, and for Audrey Van Alstyne – Vancouver School Board district principal of learning technologies – that means another year of helping students avoid digital pitfalls.

Ms. Van Alstyne said her message to students is always respect yourself and protect yourself. "The first thing I do when I go into a class is I'll say, 'Is it okay with everyone if I take your picture?'"

That usually starts a conversation, she said, about why anyone would ask permission to take a photo. It also gets students thinking about how to control what ends up online. "I tell the kids anything you do online, think of the ramifications offline," she said.

Peter Chow-White, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication, said young people tend to act differently around their parents or teachers than they would their friends.

"You have to assume that they're all going to be there [on social media]," he said. "When you're thinking of putting up that thing that's funny, try to think your mom, dad or teacher's going to see that."

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