Police in Ontario used the public alert system to help find an alleged killer, why didn't Quebec City?

This summer the Ontario Provincial Police was looking for a murder suspect, they found him in part because of a targeted emergency message. Quebec City police opted not to use the technology while a killer was on the loose on Halloween night. Why?

Residents of Old Quebec question why they weren't warned to stay inside during the Halloween attack

The Quebec City police department opted not to use Alert Ready to warn residents of the Old City that a dangerous suspect was in the vicinity. (Jean-Claude Taliana / CBC)

In the early morning hours of July 15, a body was discovered in a motel in Carleton Place, Ont., west of Ottawa.

Ontario Provincial Police investigators quickly concluded foul play and set about chasing down their prime suspect, who they believed was somewhere in surrounding Lanark County.

"We knew we were looking for an armed and dangerous suspect and we decided this was an opportunity to utilize the Alert Ready system to get the message out to the public that there is a potentially dangerous person in the community," said Bill Dickson, the O.P.P.'s media co-ordinator for Eastern Ontario.

Alert Ready is a national emergency warning system that was set up in 2018. It sends messages to mobile devices and cuts into radio and television broadcasts. It can be narrowly targeted, down to individual cell towers.

That investigation marked the first, and thus far only, time the O.P.P. has used the alert in an active search for a violent suspect. Given it had the unexpected benefit of generating tips leading to an arrest, they're planning on using it again.

It came three months after a Nova Scotia denturist went on a murder spree in Portapique, N.S., and killed 22 people. The RCMP came under heavy criticism for not using the system and opting instead to warn the public through social media.

A few days later, Halifax municipal police issued an alert after reports of shots being fired in the city's core. It ended up being a false alarm, but the message had the desired effect.

"I live about 60 kilometres away, but that's about how far [the Portapique killer] went so when I saw the alert — I was doing yard work — I put the equipment away and went inside. You never know, right?" said Terry Canning, who formerly served as Nova Scotia's emergency communications co-ordinator.

The technology is available in Quebec, via the Public Security ministry's operations centre. But Quebec City police elected not to use it during the recent Halloween attacks that left two dead, five injured and residents of Old Quebec terrified. As one of them, Mimi Barrow, told CBC "I think there should have been a better warning system in place."

Quebec has such a system. So, why wasn't it used?

Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said Alert Ready, which has been used 77 times in Ontario this year but only twice in Quebec (for an Amber alert and a tornado warning), is still at the "trial run" stage. Using it, she added, is the local authorities' call.

A spokesperson for the Quebec City police service cited several reasons for electing not to. They believed they'd quickly controlled the situation, plus the technology "is still new in terms of its use by police organizations."

Insp. André Turcotte also said "sending out a mass alert prematurely at the beginning of an event could also have led to other consequences, for example [alerting] the suspect, which wasn't advisable in the circumstances."

As it was, the attacker was able to elude arrest for nearly two and a half hours. Though police sent a description of their suspect to taxi operators, the transit authority, port security and other partners roughly 25 minutes after the initial 911 calls, no public notification was issued until a Tweet that appeared at 11:57 p.m.

Carl Girouard was captured by a security guard in the city's Old Port at about 12:45 a.m. He was allegedly armed with a sword. He faces two counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

There is a large body of academic literature testifying to the benefits of using social media in crisis circumstances, but experts say the national public alert system provides far greater, and better targeted reach.

Given the lessons learned in Portapique, Canning said "it's surprising to me the Quebec City police wouldn't have picked up on that."

Perhaps more puzzling: police took the time in the middle of a manhunt to craft a message for cabbies, why not send it out more widely? 

"It seems to me that there's an onus on police services to give something accurate, and it doesn't need to be extensive, just accurate, to inform the local population," Canning said. In other words, a targeted blast in Old Quebec advising people to get off the streets.

Using the public alert system requires police to jump through an added bureaucratic hoop by going through the government's operations centre, but Canning said that isn't what stops a force from using it.

"It's not the technology, it's not the structure, it's the decision-making," he said. "Often it comes down to the individual who's in charge that day."

with files from Susan Campbell and Cathy Senay


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