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

Informing public about potential threats a complex matter: experts

Toronto Police did not announce they were boosting police presence until journalists began calling Thursday morning

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.

READ MORE: Police warn of ‘potential risk’ to Greater Toronto area

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.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Penticton tech company gets boost from federal government

XCO Tech will receive $800,000 in federal funding to commercialize their technology platforms

Public invited to open house to discuss future of Shatford Centre

The Okanagan School of the Arts is looking for input as to the future of the organization’s home

Still time to register for today’s Cyber Security Table Talk presented by Valley First

The Penticton & Wine Country Chamber of Commerce event still has seats available

South Okanagan kettle program in need of volunteers

The Penticton Salvation Army kettle program has 700 slots to fill

VIDEO: Amazon to split second HQ between New York, Virginia

Official decision expected later Tuesday to end competition between North American cities to win bid and its promise of 50,000 jobs

Stink at B.C. school prompts complaints of headaches, nausea

Smell at Abbotsford school comes from unauthorized composting operation

Fear of constitutional crisis escalates in U.S.; Canadians can relate

Some say President Donald Trump is leading the U.S. towards a crisis

B.C.-based pot producer Tilray reports revenue surge, net loss

Company remains excited about ‘robust’ cannabis industry

Canada stands pat on Saudi arms sales, even after hearing Khashoggi tape

Khashoggi’s death at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul further strained Riyadh’s already difficult relationship with Ottawa

Feds pledge money for young scientists, but funding for in-house research slips

Canada’s spending on science is up almost 10 per cent since the Liberals took office, but spending on in-house research is actually down

Police in Vernon catch suspects after armed robbery in Salmon Arm

Victims told police they were robbed at knife point near an ATM

Disabled boy has ‘forgiven’ bullies who walked on him in stream, mom says

A Cape Breton teen who has cerebral palsy was told to lie in a stream as other kids walked over him

Letters shed light on state of mind of B.C. mom accused of daughter’s murder

Trial of South Surrey mother Lisa Batstone begins in BC Supreme Court

Most Read