On June 4, 2014, at 7:20 p.m. in Moncton, N.B., the RCMP Codiac Regional Detachment received a call that an armed man dressed in camouflage was walking through a residential neighbourhood. It was the beginning of a crisis that sparked a 30-hour lockdown as police hunted for a man who killed three RCMP officers and injured two others.
Almost immediately, the public took to social media — Twitter and Facebook — describing what they were seeing, everything from police vehicles racing down their street to an image of a then-unknown suspect wearing fatigues and carrying two rifles to a video of a woman witnessing gunfire from her house.
It was on social media that RCMP communications strategist Alex Vass first heard about the shooter.
Vass called into work and, after making arrangements to bring his daughter to a friend's house, he arrived at Codiac Detachment just before 9 p.m.
Social media was already engaged and rumours were circulating. It was clear to Vass and the communications team that the RCMP needed to get accurate information about the situation into the public's hands right away.
"We had an idea of what we were dealing with, but the only thing that was on our minds at the time was that we had an active shooter out there somewhere in a residential area so the key is to get people to stay in and stay away from that area," says Vass.
Using traditional media to immediately get the word out wasn't the best option. The local television news was in between broadcasts, the local radio station wasn't live at the time and the area newspaper was behind a paywall so not everyone had access to its digital version.
"Social media was just the way to go," says Vass. "It allowed us to get out and communicate directly to citizens."
It was a quick and easy way for the communications team to not only put the message out, but to have control over it.
With the world watching, the communications around the incident needed to be timely and accurate, and it had to say something.
The team made sure that the messages had a call to action, asking people to do something like stay inside and leave the porch light on.
The first tweet was posted about two hours after the initial call. The small team continued to post a new message on average every 30 minutes for the next 12 hours.
"Throughout the night, there was still information we needed to get out," says Paul Greene, the Director of Communications for the RCMP in New Brunswick. "We wanted to get out things like a map of the area that was cordoned off. If you're in that area, stay in your homes and don't answer the door."
Each tweet and Facebook post was brand new — even if the information didn't change. The idea of posting new messages was to reassure people that if they were sitting in their basement, and a lot of people were, the RCMP was still there with them.
"That seemed to reassure people," says Greene. "And what we noticed as well was the rumours stopped on social media. People were going to our site. So if people were saying something else, others were going, 'Hang on, the RCMP didn't say that.' Then they would point back to us. We were the credible source of information."
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, every message that was sent out was co-ordinated by the communications team, including Vass and Media Relations Officer Cst. Damien Theriault on the ground in Moncton, and Greene at the headquarters in Fredericton with Insp. Dave Vautour.
Vautour was acting as the incident commander for the first few hours of the shooting and, as such, was the delegator and the decision maker. Every few minutes, Vass would approach Vautour with what they wanted to send out.
In a first for the RCMP, investigators of the June 4 Moncton shootings used an online tool that allowed the public to anonymously upload images and videos relevant to the case, to a secure RCMP website.
When canvassing the neighbourhood for videos and images, investigators quickly realized that people were reluctant to give up their mobile phones and computers to police. There was a belief they'd have to give up their device for an extended period of time and some were concerned about their privacy.
"We felt that if we developed a tool like this, the public would be less reluctant to share the images online," says Sgt. Mark Janes, the team commander on the file. "We thought we probably weren't getting everything and believed that we could get more if we came up with this tool."
They sent a request for technical assistance. The RCMP's National Communication Services' New Media team, the Chief Information Officer sector and Shared Services Canada worked together to develop the video upload tool, a web application connected to a dedicated server for data collection. It took just under a week from the time it was requested to the time it was ready to go public.
Then the communications team in New Brunswick used social media and a news release to get the message out that the tool was available.
While this tool was used by the public, it's one that should only be requested for special investigations, says Janes. "Once you commit to doing something like that, you've got to be ready for the amount of information you're going to get."
Everything that's seized by the RCMP has to be viewed, organized, searchable and indexed. In the case of the Moncton shootings, they received more than 26,500 videos and images collected through all channels. It's taken a special multimedia team more than four months to go through all the data collected.
— Deidre Seiden
"At the time, it was one of those events that you couldn't imagine because of the phone calls and text messages and the people who were showing up and arriving, we were being inundated from all angles," says Vautour.
As the night progressed, the team had to make some tough decisions about what information to share with the public. Two of the biggest decisions Vautour had to make were whether or not to identify the shooter and whether they should confirm the number of members killed and injured.
Vautour says he relied on Vass and the team's expertise, and in the end, decided to share both pieces of information.
"I knew I was taking a risk putting that information out, but I also knew it was the right thing to do," says Vautour. "If I have to worry about whether I'm going to get sued because I released information or I have to keep the public safe, I'm going to err on the side of keeping the public safe, which is what I fell back on in making that decision."
Not all of the decisions on what to reveal were difficult ones. They focused on public safety and police safety. When the RCMP noticed members of the public were posting on social media the whereabouts of active police officers, they asked them not to, saying it could be dangerous. They didn't know if the suspect was following on social media.
When someone asked the RCMP on Facebook if it would be helpful if they turned their porch light on. Theriault agreed that it would help the operation and that became a part of their regular message, with the public and media taking up the movement.
Trusted news source
The detachment was getting hundreds of calls from media all over the world. No sooner did they listen to one message from a media outlet, than there would be ten more in its place. The media picked up on what the RCMP was saying on social media, using screen shots of their tweets on their websites and in their broadcasts.
"We were a very small team in the middle of a crisis," says Greene. "This was the best way to get the information out."
Only a few interviews were given during the crisis and these were chosen strategically to reach the residents of Moncton to keep them informed of the situation.
People were waiting for and relying on the RCMP for the information, often not trusting what they were hearing until it was confirmed by the RCMP.
"When the shooter was arrested and social media lit up with the fact that he had been arrested, there were a lot of people who commented that they were waiting until they heard the official word from the RCMP," says Vass.
For the duration of the lockdown and the days leading up to and after the funeral, RCMP in New Brunswick kept their lines of communication open, continually posting information to social media and following the conversation online. In this way, they were able to answer questions coming from the media and the public.
After the funerals, their inbox was flooded with questions and requests for interviews about Danny the police dog. He struck a chord with people when, at the funeral, he stood on his hind legs to sniff his late partner, Cst. Dave Ross', Stetson.
The communications team responded by writing a news release about Danny's future. They visited Danny and recorded a video of him playing in a creek that they uploaded on YouTube and linked to in the press release. The video has more than 100,000 views. They were able to get that information without doing conventional interviews.
Building a following
Using social media effectively was not an accident for the team. Since 2010, they've had a plan in place.
"Since we got into social media, the plan has always been to use it to help prevent and solve crime," says Greene. "That was always the goal. In fact, that's our entire communications objective."
Lauri Stevens, a social media expert specializing in law enforcement, says that the communications team understood what they needed to do.
"The beauty of it was it was very simple," says Stevens. "It wasn't a complex, rocket science kind of thing. It was very simple and extremely effective."
This isn't always easy in policing, she says. Quite often the police are focused on the operation and not on the communication around it. As people take to social media more and more, the outcome of police operations are affected by that, either positively or negatively.
"I see the necessity for communications and investigators to come closer and closer together and actually be working hand in hand," says Stevens. "And that's what happened during those 10 days. The communications team were in the know about what the guys on the ground were doing and they, in turn, collaborated and worked together to improve the safety of the people on the ground."
Before this incident, the New Brunswick RCMP Twitter and Facebook accounts had 8,000 and 10,000 followers, respectively.
"We had a nice steady buildup of followers over the years," says Greene. "It was always on the rise, always going up and we knew that if we ever had to use this for anything we had to be able to engage that audience quickly and immediately. June 4 was absolutely that situation."
The day after the shootings, the number of people following Twitter jumped to 56,000 and Facebook went up to 28,000.
Steve Ladurantaye, the head of Government Partnerships, Twitter, Canada, was watching the account. He says that people were monitoring the RCMP NB account closely because it was their primary source of information.
"That's where they were going to get unfiltered, real-time information from the police force that they trust to provide that information," says Ladurantaye. "There was a significant number of retweets, which indicated that people were spreading the word to make sure that people in their own networks were aware of what was happening around them."
It turned into a more proactive outreach, which Ladurantaye says was really interesting because people were trying to help the police as much as they could and taking instruction from them.
With three friends killed, two injured and a gunman on the loose, it would have been easy to let emotions take over, but this didn't happen.
"You try and just put this to the side, recognizing that our job is to keep the public safe and make sure no one else was injured," says Greene. "And even though we're communications, we just knew we had to assist with that. I think we did that really effectively."
The communications team was recognized by their international peers in law enforcement and communications with the ConnectedCops Social Media Event Management award. They ended up doing what they had to do because of a tragic situation, something that Vass says they always kept in the forefront of their minds.
"What we were able to do through social media in terms of keeping the public informed and aware of what was going on, and having that recognized by peers, basically confirms that we did the right things at the right time and for the right reasons," says Vass.