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Informing public about potential threats a complex matter: experts

Police are seen in Toronto, on July 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

A day after vague police statements about a “potential risk” in the Greater Toronto Area sparked confusion and anxiety, security and communications experts said law enforcement must strive to be transparent without stoking public fears when sharing details about unconfirmed threats.

Toronto police said Thursday that “unconfirmed, uncorroborated” information led them to ramp up the number of officers in the city’s downtown core. Officers did not provide specifics on the nature of the potential risk and simultaneously encouraged the public to “come on down” to the area. The lack of detail left some residents wondering if they might be in serious danger.

Such circumstances are extremely challenging for police and, as public awareness of terrorism grows, they may become more common, said Satyamoorthy Kabilan, a national security specialist with the Conference Board of Canada think tank.

“If (police) provide too much transparency on every single incident that occurs, you might end up with public panic and the public going, ‘Oh my god I can’t go anywhere,” said Kabilan, who helped the United Kingdom develop its National Counter Terrorism Strategy.

“The flip side is, police have to take a lot of these incidents seriously and act on them.”

Kabilan noted that if a situation escalated to the point where members of the public should not be in a certain area, police would specifically share that.

Toronto police tried to be as open with the public as they could be during an ongoing investigation, force spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said Friday.

“I think we provided similar information to what we have done in the past with similar situations, “ she said. “And I think we would look to follow the same sort of process if we were ever faced with this situation again.”

Police did not announce they were boosting police presence downtown until journalists began calling Thursday morning, either because they had seen more officers on the streets or because they had heard from inside sources that something was going on, Gray said.

At 9:30 a.m., police tweeted about increased officer presence as a means of addressing any questions or concerns, and to “provide the media and the public with consistent information,” she said.

Two hours later, Acting Supt. Michael Barsky held a news conference near the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre, saying the heightened police presence was in response to information about a potential risk, but that there was no reason to avoid the downtown area or any of Toronto’s major attractions.

“We wanted to provide some information and reassurance to the public that we were responding as appropriate,” Gray said. “Our response (to the potential risk) was completely standard for when these types of issues arise.”

Police released a statement shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday saying they had resumed their normal operations.

“We know this heightened security can be concerning for the public,” they said. “Our goal is always to be as transparent as possible while protecting the integrity of our investigations.”

Several members of the public, however, found the police tweet and news conference generated more questions than answers.

“I think it’s kind scary because you know there’s a threat but you don’t know what it is,” Nida Rafiq, who works across from Union Station, said.

On Thursday afternoon, multiple media outlets also reported they’d obtained an internal Toronto police memo that stated officers had received “credible information regarding a potential vehicle ramming attack in the area of the CN Tower.”

Police declined to comment on the contents of that memo, but said it was a “draft operational plan” that was never approved, and that the public had been “provided with the most up-to-date and accurate information” available.

One media expert said all of Thursday’s developments highlight the need for journalists to be extra-cautious and transparent in their approach to covering matters like potential safety risks.

“When the stakes are that high, you have to be especially careful,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the U.S.-based Poynter Institute for journalism. “I always say in breaking news, the clock moves twice as fast and time is always the enemy of accuracy.”

Police had to release some kind of statement about the potential risk, because members of the public likely would have noticed the increased number of uniformed officers on the streets and wondered what was going on, Tompkins said.

“Unanswered questions about security often cause more harm than the truth,” he said. “They might (result in) a loss of confidence in the police’s ability to do their job, or a loss of confidence that the police are going to tell me the truth … Sometimes these losses are not calculable but they are cumulative.”

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