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Poor communications in Bathurst police shooting leads to the inevitable

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In crisis communications, in other words at times when your reputation hangs in the balance, you better make darn sure that you don't come off as trying to cover anything up.

But as often as not, it is at these very times – when your reputation is hanging out there, that people tend to hunker down under the false impression that if they just lay low, whatever it is will blow over.  

It is a communications mistake of the first order, but one that is not that rare – it is human nature driven.

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The latest example is the fatal shooting by Bathurst Police Monday morning of a 51-year old businessman from Tracadie. From the scant details available so far, Michel Vienneau got off a Via Rail train at the Bathurst station, and when he and the woman he was with got in their car, they were surrounded by armed police.

From there, who knows, but according to the woman several people with guns approached the car. She says she and Michel tried to get out of there and in their haste they struck one of the armed men and that is when Vienneau was shot. The woman says they did not know the men approaching the car were police.

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How much of this is accurate? Don’t know, because aside from verifying that police shot the driver, they are saying nothing.

The woman says it is a case of mistaken identity; that Michel did nothing wrong.

The Bathurst police have handed over the investigation to the Nova Scotia RCMP, and this is where the communications gets worse. Rather than being definitive that all facts will come out once the investigation is complete, something that the public should be able to expect in a case like this, a spokesperson for the RCMP refused to say whether the results of the investigation would be made public.

So here’s a situation where a man is dead by a police bullet, the police force is being investigated by another police force, neither force is saying much of anything, and the suggestion is out there that the public may never find out what happened.

If the police wanted to set the stage for innuendo and rumours to run rampant, this is certainly the formula.

A French newspaper in the area is apparently reporting that the officer who approached the car was wearing a hoodie and had his gun drawn. Accurate? Again, who knows, but it is out there, and creates an image for the public that accurate or not, suggests why the guy in the car may have been understandably scared and struck an officer in his hurry to get away.

Most people are fair-minded. Most people realize it is early days and that the investigation will take time, and must be thorough. Most people don’t rush to judgment. But in a case like this people expect at least some basic information, and assurances that in due course the truth will be known.

And in the absence of any of that, people will and do jump to conclusions. And they will be cynical.

Want to see what I mean? Go to the CBC website and look at the comments under the story on this that was posted yesterday

People are jumping to conclusions. A couple of examples:

“Let me guess.........the official police report.... two years from now will say the police did nothing wrong.”

If this murdered man was really the target of a legitimate police investigation that would have been the first thing the police would have said. He was ISIS or Al Qaida or he was part of a drug investigation or Mafia but strangely enough there is nothing but this is an incident. There silence is telling!”

It is unfortunate that the authorities won’t say that eventually we will find out what actually happened. That one assurance would be enough for many.

I expect they will revisit that decision over the next day or two. Transparency within our police force is simply too fundamental to our society for people to accept anything less.

In the meantime, so far at least, the authorities are falling short with their communications.

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