09 April 2015

The irresponsible rush to judgment #nlpoli

For those not involved but deeply concerned about the events in Mitchell’s Brook on Easter Sunday, one of the more disturbing aspects of the Dunphy shooting has been the ease with which a relatively small number of people have taken up sides on the shooting without much in the way of evidence.

The rush to judgment has been equally easy both for those unduly keen to declare the shooting was “by the book” as for those who see the shooting as a political assassination,  murder of an injured worker, or a sign of what will come  under the federal government’s controversial anti-terror legislation. 

At the same time,  official sources have decided to say very little.  They shouldn’t discuss the subject of the investigation itself.  That would be inappropriate and both the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have shut down any extraneous information.  The only official comment is coming from the detachment handling the investigation.

The official vacuum extends much winder than it should though.  There’s a complete absence of factual information about the type of investigation, its scope,  or the actors involved in this incident.  Basic information would kill off most of the commentary out there coming from all sides. 

The result is that the public is misinformed.   They aren’t getting a full picture.

The Persistence of False Information

Let’s take the simple question of the police organization to which the officer involved belonged.  Initial reports described him or her as a member of the Premier’s personal protection detail.  That description has continued to turn up even though both Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Bill Janes and Premier Paul Davis correctly identified the officer as a member of the unit that provides security for a number of senior officials.

That simple piece of misinformation has enabled all sorts of speculation about connection between the comments Don Dunphy made on Twitter and the shooting. 

Next let’s consider Dunphy’s tweets. As recently as Tuesday evening,  CBC continued to present the “threatening tweet”,  taken out of context.  The use of the tweet came complete with a read that gave artificial emphasis to the wrong words in order to conform to the initial reports this was the cause of police interest in Dunphy. 

As early as the morning after the shooting,  though, we knew the full context of the tweet presented initially by both CBC and VOCM.  It’s pretty clear to any reasonable person reading the full commentary that there is no obvious threat to any politician in Dunphy’s words.  In context the words “that I may hurt” that appear in the out-of-context media usage of the tweet is actually an explanation of why Dunphy would not name two deceased MHAs.  It was out of concern for the family members that he “may hurt” if he named them publicly.

The persistence of false information in media reports across the province continues to make it difficult for the public to understand what is happening.

Riding in Cop Cars with Da B’ys

Discussion on social media on Monday and Tuesday included plenty of comment about the police action that came before the shooting.  Most of it operated at the level of a police procedural. As much energy as that consumed from some people,  the whole thing ended abruptly on Tuesday afternoon with the first briefing by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The RCMP confirmed that the officer involved did exactly what one would expect of an officer working in one of the elite units of the local police.  In one fell swoop all of that talk about whether the officer went in plain clothes, or identified himself as a police officer, or showed up unannounced, just vanished off the table as a subject for discussion.

What the CSI: St. John’s experts seem to have missed from the RCMP statement is the implicit police perspective on the  “threat”.  The statement described the tweet as a “comment” not a threat.  As well, the officer involved in the shooting also assessed the risk posed by Dunphy as low.  We don’t know if the officer reviewed all the online information or just the one tweet out of context.  All the same, it appears he or she made a conclusion that is consistent with what many other people have said about Dunphy.

A thorough investigation, with integrity

The RCMP announced on Wednesday that retired supreme court justice David Riche would serve as an independent observer on its investigation into the shooting. Riche is there to provide some measure of public assurance of the integrity of the investigation by one force of another with which it has an intimate working relationship.  A number of people – SRBP included – raised a question about this and Riche’s appointment should meet any concerns about a potential appearance of a bias or conflict.

That point will likely go a long way to meeting the family’s requirement as well, if we can judge by statements on Wednesday by Erin Breen, the family’s lawyer.  Breen told reporters that Dunphy’s family wanted “a thorough investigation” and a investigation with integrity.” Breen said that the family was particularly concerned with events at the house.

A series of events

At the same time, though, Breen did note that there were two issues in this case.  One is the events leading up to the police arriving at the house.  The second is the 15 minutes or so from the time the officer arrived until Dunphy died.  It’s not surprising at all that the family would be most concerned at this time with immediate events before Dunphy’s death.  Nor is it surprising that media attention has been on the dramatic events at Dunphy’s house.  The other stuff becomes a “red herring,”  as Breen has described it.

But while others have also called everything else a red herring, it’s important to note that Breen is very much aware of the whole picture. If you watch her entire scrum you’ll see there is a much more informed, nuanced view of events than the Breen-says-it’s-all-a-red-herring type of headline CBC has screamed across its online story.

Over the course of the whole investigation, we will need to understand not only the events in the minutes immediately before the officer killed Dunphy.  We will also need to know how the officer came to be at the house in the first place.

That’s an area that so far has been shrouded  more in imagination than knowledge.  It seems that many people, reporters included, speculated that the police security unit took action on its own to investigate the threat.  They didn’t actually know what happened.  Until the Premier inadvertently disclosed on Monday that the police had been alerted to Dunphy’s comments by someone in the Premier’s Office.

The need for wider inquiry

So far,  news media have avoided this aspect of the continuum of events that led police to Dunphy’s doorstep. That may change since the Premier’s Office is the starting point for the subsequent events.  Regardless of what the media does,  there is a need for a wider inquiry that will examine all the relevant aspects of Don Dunphy’s tragic death.

Mark Watton noted on Twitter on Wednesday that the bigger question is “what protocols exist for political staff monitoring tweets, calling cops and assessing threats.”  Such information was material for an inquiry. Watton’s view is informed by considerable as a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office and as a chief of staff to a cabinet minister. 

Watton said a public inquiry “might answer the question of why police sent in the first place and by whom.”  Watton said that there’s a “very fundamental civil liberties issue at stake here (beyond Mr. Dunphy's tragic circumstance)”  namely “the question of who sends the cops to your house when political staff are offended by your Twitter account.”

Between the two extremes who have already rushed to judgment,  there are others who know that it is just stupid to make decisions without having all the information.  We are a long way from having all the relevant information in the Dunphy shooting yet.