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Police struggling to cope with emboldened riot culture in Canada

As cop car begins to burn, militant poses for the cameras, Toronto G20, June 26, 2010.

Adrian Humphreys, National Post, May 18, 2012

In Toronto, at the G20 protests in 2010, police went in hard — batons flailing, arrests sweeping — and the outcome was a mess: destroyed property, public havoc and an outcry over police tactics.

Fast-forward to this week in Montreal; street protests over tuition hikes were greeted with a patient police stance. The outcome was a mess: Demonstrations turned increasingly violent, bringing property damage, public havoc and an outcry over police tactics.

As rampage becomes routine, when any large gathering in any urban setting seems an easy opportunity for street insurgency, police forces across Canada struggle to deal with an emboldened riot culture.

Iron fist or velvet rope, police crowd control strategies all seem to end in acrimony and criticism and, like a mob running riot, the need for answers is growing.

It is unexpectedly pushing the most un-Canadian issue of riot control to the top of the nation’s policing agenda.

“It is having a huge impact on police organizations across the country. Police departments are training and equipping public safety units to an extent we haven’t ever had to do in this country,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association.

“It is frustrating because we have tried a passive approach and had it backfire, and we have tried to jump on it quickly and then be criticized.

“It is a very difficult situation to deal with — to balance the legitimate rights of Canadians to have protests and to gather and express a view, when there is a certain element, especially when dealing with a younger demographic, intent on turning a lawful protest into a violent confrontation.”

Riot control “has reached a high priority” for all police brass, according to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Following the G20, the Vancouver riots and Occupy protests, there has been considerable discussion and sharing of best practices,” said Timothy Smith, spokesman for the chiefs.

Police forces are considering standardizing public order units and responses to major events, swapping information and experiences on reconciling Charter rights with public peace, and dealing with the financial impact of burgeoning disorder, as all of that tactical gear is expensive.

Many point to the 1997 protests at the APEC Conference in Vancouver as the genesis of Canada’s riot culture. It made household names of protester Jaggi Singh and RCMP Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart, dubbed Sgt. Pepper because of his liberal application of pepper spray.

It seemed the battle lines, inherited by most protests since, were drawn during that hectic week.

APEC led to a public inquiry, where deficiencies in police planning and action were chronicled and with many of those same complaints echoed in this week’s report on the G20, it raises questions of what has been learned.

Since APEC, there have been public demonstrations descending into chaos in many cities, some with political roots (Quebec City, 2001), others stem from hockey losses (Vancouver, 2011) and wins (Montreal, 2008).

Each highlights the difficulty of policing mass public dissent in a democracy. (It’s not so difficult in a dictatorship, where water cannons, cattle prods, torture and executions pass as sound policing.)

Canadians, generally, expect to have a right to speak out, wave signs and raise concerns. Canadians also, generally, expect it all to end without blood, broken glass, courts and police disciplinary hearings.

“We need to work within appropriate levels of accountability,” said Mr. Stamatakis, “while trying to find ways to avoid finding ourselves in these same situations over and over again.”

Vancouver Canucks hockey riot, June 15, 2011: a mob approaches police line, with one waving a hockey stick overhead.

Mr. Stamatakis has, himself, donned helmet and shield to face rioters and said it is “bewildering.”

“I couldn’t believe I was in Canada.”

Privately, some officers exasperated by the public pummeling — not all of it seen as legitimate — suggest that, increasingly, the answer lies with aggressive but proactive policing: doing more to ferret out problems and remove the threat before it spreads.

“There are three grounds an officer can make an arrest,” said one officer who was involved in G20 security and did not want his name published.

“When you actually catch someone committing a crime; when you have reasonable and probable grounds to believe the person has committed a crime; and when there’s reasonable and probable grounds to believe someone is going to commit a crime.

“We should have done more on that last ground and less on the first and second. Why did we wait until after the stones were thrown? We knew this was going to happen,” he said.

“We had plenty of intelligence about what was going to happen.”

But would mass arrests before anyone had actually done anything really have muted criticism over police actions?

The various reports that emerged since the G20 riots — declared the largest mass arrests in Canadian history — document a litany of things police did wrong but offer little overarching strategy on how such an event, as a whole, might be better handled.

In this week’s report by Office of the Independent Police Review Director, Gerry K. McNeilly said officers violated civil rights, overstepped authority, detained people illegally and used excessive force.

His recommendations offered much on individual practices, such as communications, record-keeping, communications and types of handcuffs and other equipment. There was a plea for more time to plan, a luxury world events do not always allow, and admonishment for officers removing their name tags. He wants better training and co-operation.

“All police services that have public order units should continually review their tactics for maintaining public order. These tactics should enable them to respond effectively to existing protester actions or evolving actions that may be employed,” he wrote.

Toronto Police Chief William Blair said on Friday his force has learned from the experience.

Militant throws stone during Quebec student protests in Montreal, Spring 2012. Clashes with cops and property damage common during mobilization.

“The G20 represented an unprecedented challenge for the Toronto Police Service,” he said. “We did our best to protect the people of Toronto and our city from the violence and destruction that this event brought. We also attempted to facilitate lawful, peaceful protest and maintain the security of the summit site.

“I will ensure that the lessons we learn during the G20 are incorporated into our procedures, our training and our future response.”

They are lessons all chiefs will want to hear.

Clare Westcott, chairman of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Commission in the 1980s, said public culture has dramatically changed.

“When I was with the police commission, you couldn’t have a parade or a public gathering in this city without a permit. I had to sign all those permits. It was all orderly. Now, you get 100 of your friends together and you can do what you want.

“Entitlement seems to be infectious. There are no longer any obligations, there are only rights. How do you stop it? It’ll take some guts. If the solution isn’t locking them up, then I don’t know what it is.”

Solutions are not always easy.

In the meantime, Mr. Stamatakis said, “We better get used to it.”

National Post


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