RCMP say ERT emergency convoy through Revelstoke was ‘operational,’ not training

RCMP provide little information about why a convoy of police vehicles sped down the Trans-Canada Highway and detoured into Revelstoke on June 16, which they say started out as a training exercise in Salmon Arm and Canoe, but then morphed into an 'operational' call.

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Revelstoke RCMP parade past the Revelstoke Museum during the 2019 Canada Day Parade. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Other than the long drive-thru lineup at the newly re-opened A&W restaurant nearby the Trans-Canada Highway, the hubbub in Revelstoke on Tuesday, June 16 was a motorcade of RCMP SUVs, emergency response armoured vehicles and other police vehicles that rushed eastbound from the Salmon Arm and Canoe area, continuing eastbound past Revelstoke, but not before an unexplained detour onto Victoria Road under the CP Rail line underpass and around the roundabout on Victoria Road.

Witnesses described the vehicles with emergency lights flashing as they overtook vehicles on the highway in an apparent rush to get to some unknown point east.

As the police incident unfolded, the Revelstoke Mountaineer started receiving text messages from residents who were wondering what was going on. Several years back, the Revelstoke RCMP switched to an encrypted radio system, meaning nosy local reporters can’t listen in on the police scanner anymore, thankfully never having to hear all about a “10-11 on an Alberta marker” ever again, but unfortunately losing a lot of connection with what the local gendarmerie is up to on a day-to-day basis.

As usual with our post-truth, post-fact information environment in 2020, the incident caused speculation on local social media, where residents were getting animated about a “SWAT” team convoy (In Canada, don’t ever call it a SWAT team in front an RCMP member because that really grinds their gears. It’s ERT, a virtually all-male unit.) As usual for police actions these days, the rush to opinion cleaved neatly between the cop-detractors on one side, who had lots of snide comments to proffer (Heard about the new A&W, lol!), and the flag-salutin’ upholders of the status quo, who argued that everyone was getting their underwear in a bunch about the ersatz Cannonball Run, because security.

So, what was going on?

First to dive in to shed light on the mysterious emergency was the Revelstoke Review.

“Large police convoy on Highway 1 just training exercise say RCMP,” read the local newspaper of record’s headline, which was filed at 11:45 a.m. on July 17.

However, in fact, it wasn’t a training exercise, but the confusion is understandable. The night of the incident, the Revelstoke Mountaineer sent an email question to the Southeast District communications contact, asking about the incident. Here is our initial question:

Revelstoke Mountaineer editor Aaron Orlando: People have been messaging me about a group of ERT vehicles speeding down the highway this afternoon. Do you have information on what was happening?

And here was the RCMP reply from the next morning:

Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey, District Advisory NCO — Media Relations, BC RCMP Communications Services: Thank-you kindly for your inquiry and your continued patience. I can confirm that the Southeast District Emergency Response Team (SED ERT) was engaged in scenario training in the Salmon Arm and Canoe area yesterday. As part of their training, the tactical team is just ensuring they remain proficient in their many specialized skills. While training in the Shuswap area the team was deployed operationally. Due to operational sensitivities we are unable to provide any additional information.

~

So, that means it wasn’t training? Or rather, it started out as training then became a real-life emergency response? What does “deployed operationally” mean? We can understand the Revelstoke Review‘s confusion, though. To dial down the opacity, we followed up with the RCMP. Here is our list of questions, followed by the verbatim replies — and you can see from our questions that we were still confused as to whether this was training or some kind of real-life response.

Revelstoke Mountaineer: While conducting ERT training in public spaces, for example brandishing firearms, does the RCMP communicate this to the community ahead of time? Or secure the area they are training at before they start?

Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey, District Advisory NCO — Media Relations, BC RCMP Communications Services: When conducting training scenarios in public locations, the Emergency Response Team will display signage that alerts residents in the area and the general public that their actions are training and scenario based. To ensure the effectiveness of the training exercise these scenarios are not advertised in advance.

RM: Was this training planned ahead of time? If so, when was it planned?

RCMP: ERT training is continuous, and is necessary for the tactical team to remain proficient in their many specialized skills.

RM: Residents have complained about aggressive and dangerous driving yesterday. What is the RCMP’s policy on driving during training exercises in the public?

RCMP: We greatly appreciate the understanding of the general public and the motoring public. When this team deploys to, what are always calls for service that are high risk in nature, they often require an emergency response.

RM: The police motorcade came [from the west] on the Trans-Canada Highway, detoured into Revelstoke, including passing under the CPR train bridge on Victoria Road and around the roundabout on Victoria Road, then headed eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway. Can you explain why the motorcade, which was evidently in some kind of a rush heading east, would detour into town?

RCMP: Unfortunately I am not in a position to discuss specifics of the teams deployment, or their route due to operational sensitivities.

RM: There was a similar incident last week involving ERT vehicles. Was this also a training exercise?

RCMP: The incident last week was also an operational deployment.

RM: Do you have any further information that would shed light on this incident?

RCMP: Thank-you for your interest, however due to operational sensitivities we are unable to provide any further information.

~

We followed up with a third email, seeking a definition of what operational means. Here is the RCMP reply:

RCMP: “When they are called upon to provide support to operations, typically on the frontlines.”

Analysis

We are not sure what the incident was about because the RCMP isn’t saying. Posts on social media had the convoy turning right at Golden, heading down the Columbia Valley, but with the RCMP not providing any detail, that information cannot be confirmed. The detour into Revelstoke for an emergency east of Revelstoke remains unexplained.

It’s also worth noting that the incident involved the ERT and other police, so it’s unclear what involvement the local detachment had with the situation.

Information is real-time these days, and many police departments around the world take advantage of platforms like Twitter to communicate with the public, particularly about ongoing events. The Revelstoke RCMP don’t use social media platforms for this purpose, and don’t have a local account through which they can interact with residents. This leads to a void filled by disinformation and opinion not based on fact, a problematic situation, especially for the police themselves. (They do have a webpage, but many of the media releases aren’t posted there, only coming through email, part of an inconsistent communications framework which includes emails from multiple accounts, and lack of reliable access on evenings and weekends.)

Local media has limited resources to cover the police beat, yet locally, the RCMP essentially relies on us to communicate with the general public, leading to scattershot portrayal of policing and security issues, which hurts the RCMP as an organization. After all, journalists don’t have a sixth sense others don’t, and without the ability to monitor radio communications anymore, it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on, increasingly allowing RCMP to portray their actions if and when they see fit.

It also sets up an intractable communication dynamic. Aside from the occasional press release from the RCMP, there isn’t consistent information flow on what’s happening on the police beat. In addition, it’s not the media’s role to cut, paste, and publish police media releases uncritically, but it’s unclear if that’s well understood these days. A recent example is a June 7 incident on the Trans-Canada Highway involving an officer being pepper sprayed. In that instance, the local RCMP detachment sent out a media release, which noted that the individual now facing a series of charges was in police custody. The media release, which described the incident in some detail, also appealed for witnesses, which calls into question whether subsequent evidence gathered through the public appeal would be prejudicial. It also creates ethical questions for journalists. Assisting police in finding an unknown or wanted person who is at large in order to bring them into the justice system is an acceptable news media practice. But what about helping police build a case against someone already in custody, when, by definition, any tips garnered through a public media appeal would be prejudicial in the eyes of the court?

In this case, relaying police narratives about someone already behind bars is essentially siding with the police, without getting the other side of the story. Yet, as a textual comparison of the many stories that were fanned out across various media networks shows, it was uncritically cut and pasted by media outlets without follow up, leaving the public with one side of the story, one whose intent seemed to be to emphasize the danger involved in police work. In fact, in subsequent follow up by the Mountaineer (which was marred by delays caused by unclear communications protocols with police, causing a significant delay due to unanswered emails, which is a whole other story) police said the woman charged in the incident was described as “being distraught and appeared to be suffering a mental health crisis,” calling to the fore the critical questions about the role of police in society that are happening across North America and around the world. She was pulled over for a registration and/or insurance issue on the trailer she was towing, but that led to a confrontation with police. We asked about the timeline of the confrontation, trying to find out if the officer was instantly pepper-sprayed when approaching the vehicle, or there was some kind of interaction leading up to the situation, which are again the kind of questions at the fore of societal conversations about the nature of policing. However, the case had already entered the courts, and the accused had posted $500 bail on June 9, (further calling into scrutiny the intent of the June 8 news release and the selective nature of the sparse communications from police — are the releases about community safety or police narratives?) Police declined to answer detail questions about what transpired before the pepper-spraying incident, citing the fact that it was now before the courts.

There have been two incidents in the past several years where people wanted in connection with recent murders elsewhere ended up in Revelstoke; both of them involved an ERT response. In one of them, the individual had just shot and injured an RCMP officer near Golden, and had killed two close acquaintances earlier in Saskatchewan. Through both incidents, the local RCMP did not communicate directly with the public while the situation was ongoing. (In one of them, a standoff that lasted for hours with a man who had killed himself inside his vehicle on Victoria Road that led to an hours-long incident that included RCMP with guns drawn and targeted at the vehicle, I stood at the police cordon next to Marissa Tiel, then editor of the Revelstoke Review, and we directly asked the commanding officer for any official information. The request was denied.)

The same applies for all security-related services in Revelstoke. Try this scenario: a train derails in downtown Revelstoke after dark, rupturing cars filled with deadly gas, setting up a potentially catastrophic situation. Where would you turn for instructions on what to do? How would you know deadly gas had been spilled? How would you know what to do, or that you needed to do anything at all? The technology exists, and the RCMP will have to face the public if they fail to use freely available technology that can be just as effective a security and safety tool as an expensive armed convoy.

As a journalist, it’s my responsibility to hew as close to the truth and the facts as they can be discerned, and to be plastic and holistic in my thinking and communication. I feel the appropriate response to public requests for information in this instance is not to try to cobble together a ‘news’ tidbit about a police convoy, but point out the reasons behind the lack of clear, timely information about police actions in Revelstoke, which is what I’ve done here: point out a broken information environment that is an ongoing threat to public security, erosive to a rational, facts-based society, and likely corrosive to morale in the detachment. And also to critically assess the police’s role in public communication, and the media’s role as well.

When making the decision whether to follow up with the police on questions from the public, I do weigh whether even bothering will result in another communications schmozzle, and again, my concerns were realized in this instance, but I felt writing this story at this time was appropriate because the narrative presented by other local media is false and police are not providing information on the reason for their hubbub-inducing actions. Time for change.

[Editor’s note: At the time of publication, it has been minutes short of 24 hours since the Review published their initial report, which has not been corrected. Given the circumstances, it’s equally incumbent on the RCMP to reach out to the Review to correct the record, as the reporters there may not have understood the initial police communication, which may have been fairly opaque like the reply we were sent, could have been different from the response the Mountaineer received, and may be the source of the confusion. After all, the local RCMP rely on the news media for public communication and should be invested in the veracity of the record. Notably, residents complained about aggressive driving and overtaking that could cause a fatal MVI, something that the public would call into question for a training exercise, but would be more understandable if it was a life-or-death emergency, albeit a mysterious one the police are providing no information about. For the police to let it slide because *whatever* is tantamount to active participation in our rapidly degrading post-truth information environment, contributing to concerns by local journalists that police conceive of local media as an arm’s-length laundromat for the police version of events. We’ll follow up with an additional footnote if the Review‘s story is updated.]

Update, June 19:

Sometime later in the day on June 18 or in the morning of June 19, the Revelstoke Review updated their story, the headline now reading: ‘Updated: Large police convoy on Highway 1 not training says RCMP,’ and the story contains corresponding updates. It’s important to point out our story above isn’t intended as a criticism of the Review staff, since we do not know what the RCMP told them as the story did not originate from a media release. Our intent was to point out a problematic communications framework that originates with the RCMP. All media outlets here make our contact information widely available, and are mindful of police limitations on communicating information that could jeopardize an investigation, court case, an ongoing incident, or privacy legislation.


Do you have more information on this incident, such as where the convoy was going? Always feel free to reach out to revelstokemountaineer.com with news tips. info@revlestokemountaineer.com Find our contact info on our website or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.