One of the police officers responsible for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s Twitter presence did an interview with CBC’s Anthony Germain last Friday.
The online CBC story that came out of the interview had an interesting set of comments in it. Constable Geoffrey Higdon said:
“People think Facebook or Twitter is different in how we traditionally police. It's actually very much the same. In a sense, it's no different than someone writing a threat to someone, or to an organization, on a wall in a bathroom or a public place. And we would investigate that and treat that seriously, until we determine that there is no threat."
Writing something on Twitter is like writing something on a bathroom wall.
According to CBC, Constable Higdon also said that “if someone makes even a vague threat on social media, it is monitored, and if necessary, investigated.”
"Something like that, obviously we're going to treat it as something until it's nothing. Often, people post threats that are very direct in nature and we have to investigate that," said Higdon.
"We'll flag it, and if it's just a quick conversation with someone and they can explain the tone, because you can't translate a tone from what someone writes, through email or text or other — that's all we want to do. They can clarify it, and if we're satisfied, that's the end of it."
The Internet’s an awfully big place.
Lots of the people on there don’t post their comments conveniently using a limited number of hashtags like #nlpoli. And those people making comments often don’t use their own names. It’s pretty hard to figure out who is who and where they are in the world.
So ya gotta wonder if Higdon really meant to sound just as sinister and creepy as he did if CBC interpreted him correctly when they said that, according to Higdon, the police would actively investigate every comment that looked even like a “vague” threat.
After all, back in the days when people wrote threats on bathroom walls, the police never ever aggressively patrolled every bathroom in St. John’s looking for comments so they could nip get every threat out there in the bud before it turned into something.
Back then, if they were even half as aggressive in hunting down thought crime as Higdon would have it, the glory hole boys at the Village Mall would have been found much sooner. There certainly would have been an increase in all sorts of bowel and bladder problems. After all, you’d have a hard time going for a sit-down anywhere outside your own home if you thought that Doc Ballard was liable to kick open the stall door any moment hunting for threatening scribbles.
Then there’s the assumption of guilt implicit in Higdon’s comment that the police would “treat it [a vaguely threatening comment] as something until it's nothing.” There’s actually no evidence the police do that today, even in the case of threat complaints from the Premier’s Office.
What the RCMP told us last week from their investigation into the Dunphy shooting was pretty clear. The officer who had the complaint from the Premier’s Office did an assessment, judged the risk was low and then carried on from there. Nothing – absolutely nothing – that’s in the public domain right now suggests that the police treated the e-mail from Dunphy for more than it was. If the police had “treated it like it was something,” then they’d have headed out to Dunphy’s place, tear-gassed the crap out of his house and dragged him off in cuffs. That’s how police respond to a threat when they treat it as a threat.
Constable Higdon was probably speaking with great enthusiasm, but it doesn’t look like Constable Higdon was picking his words with any great precision. The police are doing their jobs, in other words. They will investigate complaints and follow up on information as we might expect. And we can be pretty sure that the police thoroughly investigate every complaint involving the Premier, cabinet, judges and similar VIPs.
But every threat?
There’s no sign the police have anything close to the budget of the National Security Agency or even the Communications Security Establishment. After all, these are two national organizations that suck enormous amounts of electronic information out of the ether. They’ve been doing it for decades. Both have access to the most sophisticated computers ever developed. They sift through all that information searching for people they know are trying to blow up things and kill people.
And they don’t follow up on every single threat on the Internet.
So, Constable Higdon and his colleagues? Probably not hunting down every single comment even with the help of a Mac Air and an endless supply of hot pockets and Red Bull. They certainly didn’t install a set of pre-cogs in the bunker at Fort Townshend during the last renovations to find crime before it even happens.
The police are certainly being as vigorous as they’ve always been in protecting VIPs. The protective detail doesn’t get just any officer. Former chief Robert Johnston, for example, is the kind of thorough, careful, professional officer who winds up for a period in the protective security unit. That’s where your humble e-scribbler first met him a long time ago.
Those officers follow up on every single complaint they get. That’s consistent with what Higdon said and it’s what the protective detail has always done.
How the police officers on the VIP detail tweak to a potential problem is a crucial element lots of people keep glossing over in this particular case. Anna Maria Tremonti did a national CBC radio show on Monday devoted to the way police respond to Internet threats. She used the Dunphy shooting as the hook on which to hang the show. She also referred to the police determining a threat and pursuing it. Halifax lawyer David Fraser did much the same thing in an interview with Jonathan Crowe on Tuesday.
The thing is, the police didn’t find a threat and deal with it. Someone passed the information to them as a complaint. Someone or a couple of someones in the Premier’s Office identified something they perceived as a threat. If you think about it for a second that actually makes sense: police are more likely to get a warning of a problem from the Premier’s Office. They are already receiving huge amounts of information from the public and that sometimes contains threats or potential threats. It also contains all sorts of other things the police need to follow up on that have nothing to do with threats against the Premier, but that’s another thing.
Getting information primarily from the Premier’s Office would also fit with the number of threat complaints CBC reported the police have investigated over the past three years. There’s been only one so far in 2015. Last year there were four and the year before that – back when twitchy Kathy Dunderdale was in office – the police had 17 complaints to follow up on.
Three years. Three different Premiers, one of whom we know was extraordinarily sensitive about public comments. Three radically, wildly different numbers of complaints to investigate. The largest number of complaints cam ein the year when Dunderdale was last in office. And as we know from the Gerry Rodgers lynching, Dunderdale and her crowd were known to imagine all sorts of threats where there was nothing.
All of this drags us back to where we have been since last week. There are two crucial points in the Dunphy shooting. Right now the police - and the Dunphy family – are focussed on what happened immediately preceding the fatal shooting.
Later on, we’ll likely get an inquiry into the whole incident starting with the actions in the Premier’s Office that led to the complaint going off to Fort Townshend. That public inquiry should also look at the leak last week to the local media and they can look at the whole investigative process to make sure there is no room for further improvement anywhere. The government would be hard–pressed to justify not having an inquiry under the circumstances. And if they don’t, their successors can and should.