One of the three people who raised security alarm bells by taking photographs and video inside a downtown Vancouver shopping mall says he was travelling to the city with his son and a friend, who are getting treatment for vision impairment.
"I bought my son a little phone he brought with him just to take pictures of anything he can remember, take it back home and show his family and his friends," said Mohammed Sharaz, who is from Manchester.
"My friend, when he looks at anything head on, he doesn't see like me and you do. So he'll take a picture or a movie and then later on when he gets back he zooms into it and he watches stuff," said Sharaz. "He takes pictures of anything and everything."
Sharaz said he didn't think much of it until he saw reports of himself, his son and his friend. He said he immediately phoned police, but didn't get through to anyone until after he had dropped off his son and friend at the Wellspring Clinic for Holistic Medicine where they were seeking treatment.
"I got through to a lady. I explained everything to her," he said.
Police bulletin leaked
The men were identified after a firestorm of interest when their images were released Thursday evening by a media outlet following a leak from an internal police bulletin. The outlet, Vancity Buzz, posted an article saying police were looking to speak with the men who were spotted taking photos of Vancouver's Pacific Centre's entrances and exits.
The bulletin stated that the men were Middle Eastern, which the media outlet included in its story. Other media outlets also ran the story
But at a news conference Friday, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said that information was never meant to be made public.
"The information obtained by the media was part of an internal police information bulletin shared amongst police officers through the province of B.C.," Palmer said. "That information, including photos, was obtained by a Vancouver news outlet via an unknown source and was not intended or authorized to be shared with the general public at this time."
Later, police released a statement saying they had identified and spoken with the men, noting they are "completely innocent" of any wrongdoing.
"All three men were co-operative with investigators and they had a very logical explanation regarding their behaviour," the statement said. "The investigation has conclusively determined that their actions were completely innocent."
Sharaz said police came by to meet with the men late in the afternoon and took them to the Vancouver police station through the back door.
"Obviously they didn't feel threatened by us or anything," said Sharaz. "I haven't heard from them since."
Fear of vigilantes
Sharaz said he had no issues with how police treated the situation. What concerned him more was that the information had been leaked, potentially putting him, his son and his friend at risk of harm from vigilantes.
He said the three have stayed inside since they found out the photo of the three of them was circulating on social media and the internet.
"My son's got a disability. My friend's got a disability. We're the last people who are going to be hired by some terrorist organization to take video of stuff," he said.
Dr. Weidong Yu from the Wellspring Clinic for Holistic Medicine confirmed that two of the men are his patients.
"They need to take more pictures than most other people because of their vision impairment," he said.
He wouldn't specify their diagnosis, but he said he saw them for treatment on Friday morning. He confirmed the father phoned police when he heard they were looking for him.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Vancity Buzz editor in chief Farhan Mohamed said his team published the story because it was in the public interest.
"I don't think it's fear-mongering. I think we're just being factual that this is happening and this could be something," he said.
The publication received a tip, and confirmed the information with police, who did not ask them to stifle the story, Mohamed said.
"I understand the gravity of the situation and investigations," he said. "And had it been a situation where they said, 'This is an ongoing investigation, nothing that we want out yet, can you please not run it' then we wouldn't have run it."
Not racial profiling, says police chief
Palmer, meanwhile, said the description was not racial profiling, and that details on race are always included in these kind of memos between police forces.
"Regardless of what race these people may or may not be, that's not really the issue. The issue is that we weren't planning to go public with it at all," he said.
Reports of suspicious incidents are a regular occurrence for police, and the process includes looking to police experts before taking the information to the public, Palmer explained.
Often, that process includes sharing information with other police forces.
"When we fan these types of things out to police officers throughout the province, on almost every occasion, somebody will know who this person is," the chief said.
Police said security at Pacific Centre mall alerted them to what was described as "suspicious behaviour" on Tuesday night.
The men were taking photos and video at the mall entrances and exits.