TORONTO — Ontario’s provincial police insisted on Wednesday that they had provided timely information to the media and public during their search for a gunman who killed three women but some area residents said they were kept in the dark.
However, for much of the day Tuesday, police offered few details about what had occurred in and around the community of Wilno, west of Ottawa.
“Information in regards to the seriousness of the investigation was released immediately to warn residents by contacting local media and through social media,” OPP Sgt. Kristine Rae said Wednesday.
“Investigative information changed quickly. The investigation was very fluid with the goal of capturing the suspect.”
Rae offered to release a timeline of police communications to the public, but did not do so.
As the situation began unfolding Tuesday morning, provincial police said little. They tweeted for people to avoid the area of one of the killings, which occurred about 9 a.m. They then tweeted that area schools and a courthouse were locked down and only later said they were searching for an armed suspect and urged people to stay “secure indoors.”
Several local residents reached by The Canadian Press on Tuesday as the search for the suspect was underway said they didn’t know what was going on.
Mike Harrington, who runs an auto body shop near Cormac, Ont., said he could see about 50 police officers from his home, but no one said anything to him.
Media inquiries yielded information that one person had been killed, information that did not change for hours even though investigators knew quickly that three women had been shot and who they were looking for. It was only toward mid-afternoon that police reported lockdowns — which also occurred in Ottawa itself — had been lifted and a suspect was in custody.
Terry Fleurie, with the local weekly Eganville Leader, said he first heard of the unfolding drama via text from his wife, as word spread among the small-town residents about the identities of the shooter and victims.
“I don’t believe they knew it from the police: I believe it was from hearsay or rumours or speculation or people associated with the victims,” Fleurie said. “Formal information on the incident was very hard to come by.”
Police only released the name of the suspect and victims Wednesday morning, even though numerous media outlets had reported the identities the previous afternoon — in some cases leading to confusion between the suspect and an area man with an identical first and last name.
Ottawa city police, who were involved in arresting the man now charged with three counts of first-degree murder, said it was up to provincial police to provide information because the crimes occurred in their jurisdiction.
Josh Greenberg, who heads the School of Journalism at Carleton University, said provincial police may have felt they had good reason to withhold information but said the decision could have backfired.
“They don’t want to compromise their investigation, but they’re operating in an environment where people are aware of what’s happening and they’re communicating with one another,” Greenberg said.
“So, in a context where you have a lack of official information, people start to fill in the information gaps on their own and that can place people in greater danger.”
One seasoned media relations officer with a big-city Canadian police force expressed surprise at how little information was provided to the public.
Police should have found a way to communicate more details about what they knew, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen to be criticizing colleagues.
“If someone is going around with a gun and people are dead, there’s a pretty compelling reason to release what you can,” he said. “Is there a threat to the public? If there is, you have to try to explain to the extent you can. If there isn’t a threat, then that’s equally important. You’ve got to give people enough information so they can protect themselves.”
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press