Like sports teams reviewing game tape, police forces train their officers through real events, studying what worked and what failed. As police prepare for a convoy of truck drivers and others protesting vaccine mandates to converge at Queen’s Park this weekend, the Toronto force has only to look to Ottawa for a glimpse of what may come.
It is, without a doubt, a cautionary tale.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said that police and city officials must do “everything we can” to avoid what’s unfolded in the capital city this week — a protest-turned-occupation that’s seen Ottawa’s downtown overtaken by heavy trucks and demonstrators, businesses forced to close, reports of harassment, all-night honking and racist symbols being displayed by some attendees.
Ottawa police have faced mounting condemnation from critics for failing to crack down on protesters — criticism that has only grown after the police chief declared “there may not be a police solution” and said calling in the military was on the table (a possibility Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said is not in the cards currently).
In anticipating that this weekend’s protest could become a major event, Toronto police have already avoided what one expert said was Ottawa’s central mistake.
“I think they miscalculated. I don’t think they thought it was going to be as big and long-lasting as it ended up,” said Michael Kempa, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.
“The scope of this thing is much larger than any of us had assumed.”
In a Friday press conference, Toronto police laid out an operational plan that involves a “large police presence” downtown, the installation of additional CCTV cameras, and the closure of two major stretches of the downtown core — parts of University Avenue and College Street — a measure taken to protect Toronto’s hospital row. Toronto police special event buses were also deployed to physically block off parts of University Avenue. Large vehicles have “proven to be a better way to block off streets,” said Toronto police chief James Ramer.
Ramer emphatically stated that protest vehicles “will not be congregating” at Queen’s Park. The force is instead attempting to establish, in conjunction with protest organizers, designated areas where protesters can “stage” vehicles with “minimal disruption,” though Ramer did not say where those locations would be.
Despite having time to prepare and a recent case study, Toronto police will nevertheless face some of the same challenges seen in Ottawa.
In his remarks Friday, Ramer said police would make “every attempt to facilitate peaceful assembly” while protecting public safety, hitting on a central tension that makes policing demonstrations challenging, experts told the Star.
Throughout the week, Ottawa police have been “between a rock and a hard place” and tried to enforce the most explicit law-breaking without cracking down on the right to assemble, said Lesley Wood, an associate professor at York University who researches protest policing.
“The Ottawa Police Service must try to appear politically neutral, and they must facilitate protest, while enforcing criminal laws,” Wood said. “However, they are further reducing the trust with the local population as they attempt to simply wait it out.”
On the other hand, Wood noted Ottawa police know there is a risk of creating martyrs out of the truckers if officers crack down too hard.
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The protesters’ heavy trucks add an additional level of complexity, said Charles Bordeleau, a former Ottawa police chief and public safety consultant. Not only do the trucks pose a significant logistical challenge in how to tow away heavy machinery (CTV News Ottawa reported Friday that towing companies are rejecting police requests for help). Each vehicle also represents a potential weapon.
“The last thing you want is an angry trucker to get into their vehicle and to start driving downtown recklessly, seriously injuring or killing anybody,” said Bordeleau.
And even in the thick of major incidents police need to be looking “down the road,” Bordeleau said, knowing that in the long run — especially during an event that could result in a public inquiry — they will be judged on whether they exhausted all options or applied force too soon.
“It’s a very delicate balance and a critical decision,” Bordeleau said. “When or where do you start to use those types of tactics?”
Critics have also accused police of a double standard, saying Ottawa police have treated the demonstrators with kid gloves compared to protests involving racialized demonstrators. Robin Browne, co-leader of Black advocacy group 613-819 Black Hub, noted that Ottawa police arrested 12 protesters in November 2020 after they gathered for less than three days at a single intersection downtown in support of Black and Indigenous people.
“They will bring in armed police officers to arrest 12 people, Black and Indigenous people, who are protesting very peacefully, whereas we have folks who are running around with Confederate flags and swastikas and the police are saying they can’t do anything,” he said.
“The way in which this demonstration has been dealt with is markedly different than how many peaceful protests involving Black and Indigenous people and dealt with,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto criminologist who researches policing and race, said in an interview. “I think that’s very obvious to many.”
Kempa noted that the “sheer” difference in the number of protesters makes the two events too different to compare — though he said the hands-off approach seen in Ottawa this week makes even more sense with a smaller group.
“If anything, the lesson is: let’s do the same thing for small protests,” he said.
Wood, who said there is a “long history of under-enforcement of right-wing protest by police,” said police tactics during protests are also determined through risk and threat assessments. “Despite the noise and chaos in Ottawa,” the truckers may not be seen as a true threat by police, she said.
But the example of the Jan. 6, 2021 protests in the United States and the role of American-based truckers — Ottawa police have said there is “a significant element” from the U.S. involved in the funding, organizing and demonstrating — could push police to see the truckers’ protest as a domestic security issue, Wood said.
In anticipation of the protesters’ arrival in Toronto, Wood said she expected police would attempt to reach out to the organizers, something Ramer has said the force had done.
“Whether the organizers will work with the police is a key question,” Wood said.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
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