Curiosity is not a sin. Humans are curious by nature, and being curious is a driving force behind learning and discovering. There will always be those things, however, that authorities feel they must keep secret for our own good.
Some people may disagree with this. Transparency is everything, after all. When we elect our governments, do we also consent to our elected officials keeping secrets from us? Many will answer this question with a simple “no”. These people may posit that being elected by the people and paid by the people does not mean that a person is “above” everyone else, and it certainly doesn’t give them a right to decide what information that citizens in a free and democratic society deserve to know.
Others would answer the same question with a “yes”. Sometimes secrets are necessary to keep us safe. I would agree with this when it comes to matters of security. For example, if a design flaw was found in a piece of Canadian military equipment, it would be particularly stupid to advertise this fact publicly. Secrecy in this case makes total sense. This information is “need to know” only.
Governments aside, another organization that tends to view itself as a “keeper of secrets” is the Ontario Provincial Police. I suppose this fact would apply equally to all police forces, and I am not intending to call out the OPP specifically, but it’s the OPP that serves our local area.
A situation last week in Kemptville certainly raised some questions from social media users about whether police secrecy sometimes goes too far. As you’ll read about in this issue of the Times, the situation turned out to be a murder – an extremely rare occurrence in our area. The OPP did release the relevant information to the public, but not before the police already had a strong presence on Rideau River Road, with some social media users reporting seeing officers in SWAT gear and others claiming that officers had visited them and advised them to stay safely indoors. The general word to the public during all of this was that there was not believed to be any danger to local residents. How confusing and potentially scary for these residents.
There is certainly logic in preventing mass panic, and I am not suggesting that every detail of every ongoing police investigation should be made instantly available to the public. However, with technology as advanced as it has become, is it not perhaps time for each area municipality to have a system in place for alerting residents of emergency information, as needed? It seems ridiculous that we can be woken up in the middle of the night by an alert regarding a missing Toronto child, but that when it comes to a heavy police presence on a quiet Kemptville road, those residents are reduced to writing and reading pure speculation on social media.
When I first started considering this idea, I was reminded of a different situation – this one in Winchester – a few weeks ago. While out in the yard of Winchester PS for a before-school program, staff noticed a heavy police presence in the area. Normally, in the course of several hours, it’s rare to see more than one or two police cars leave or enter the station parking lot, and police cars rarely drive by or park on the side streets. On this particular day, however, there seemed to be a police car parked at every corner. Police vehicles were passing in every direction almost steadily. There was even a car parked right beside the schoolyard fence.
What could this police presence have been for? Were they looking for a suspect? Was someone missing? Surely the OPP felt there was not enough risk of danger to let anyone know, but what if they’re wrong? Police officers are experts in policing, but they’re not experts in running a school. Do they realize how long it can take to move an entire group from one area to the other? Do they realize the special procedures required in emergency situations for children with unique needs? If their judgement was off and a “no danger” situation turned into a “much danger” situation, there would be a heavy price to pay. Trusting non-police persons, such as school staff, with relevant information could be a lifesaver in certain situations. Let everyone be the expert in their own field. Communication is key no matter what your profession happens to be. By coincidence, on the morning of the day I am writing this, there was another strong police presence near the school in Winchester with two cruisers parked beside the school fence.
A public notification system would not have to be just for police situations. It would also be useful for natural disasters. The ice storm we had earlier this year dealt a significant blow to many people. Power was off for several days in some cases, and not everyone has a device with mobile data to check for emergency information during an outage.
Let me be clear: I love the police. In fact, the local OPP detachments have some of the friendliest officers imaginable. People in other places all around the world would undoubtedly be jealous of how personable and professional our officers are. This is not a police officer problem, it’s a policy problem. We can do better when it comes to communication. “No threat to the public” is a confusing message when facing a potential SWAT team shootout, which sounds about as safe as taking a bath with a toaster. When Emergency Preparedness Week rolls out for its annual appearance in May, perhaps we should mark the occasion by considering a new local emergency alert system. It’s not about curiosity, it’s about safety. The only question is whether we can wait that long.