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Ottawa police misjudged protesters who besieged Canada’s capital


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO – Canadian police officers are on guard while they restore normalcy to the capital, as trucks and protestors continue to block the core of the city for over three weeks in an attempt to demonstrate against the pandemic restrictions in Ottawa (Ontario, Ca).

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO, Reuters – The three-week long occupation of Canada’s Capital last month was partly due to police underestimating protesters. According to sources and testimony of police officers, they assumed that they would flee within days.

The miscalculation was exacerbated when the protestors were firmly rooted in Ottawa. This, partially out of fear of escalation. Multiple observers and a police source told Reuters.

The first protesters were against the COVID-19 vaccination mandates that cross-border truck drivers must receive, but then they became an opposition to government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The “Freedom Convoy” members were cleared from Ottawa by police in riot gear, using stun grenades and pepper spray. This was just days after Trudeau declared unprecedented emergency powers.

“What they did, they could have done the same thing on Saturday.” “They were there all the time,” said a source familiar with Ottawa Police operations, who asked anonymity to avoid revealing details.

A special meeting of Ottawa’s Police Services Board was held two days before the convoy arrived in the city. There, police leaders repeatedly stated to their civilian oversight board that the convoy would leave the area within two days.

Trish Ferguson, the Deputy Chief Police Officer stated to the meeting that police officers were well-placed in terms of their resources and had built-in surge capacity to deal with protests.

Ottawa Police refused to say whether there had been a lack of leadership. They cited a review of police responses to the “unlawful protest” and didn’t immediately answer a question regarding whether or not they were able to remove the protesters from their first arrival.

Steve Bell, interim police chief, said that the officers’ response was “adequate” and efficient in a meeting of the police services board.

Bell said that “I would not agree that it’s been an colossal fail of intelligence.” Bell wouldn’t say why police allowed the cars to be downtown.

He recognized that the police must improve intelligence collection.

We must look for other ways to gather better and more timely data.

Ottawa was paralysed during the demonstrations. They dug in and then, Chief Peter Sloly (Police) called for approximately 2,000 more federal officers.

Residents suggested that a permissive attitude to police may be due in part to Sloly’s unpopularity among rank-and-file or fear of stirring up violent protesters. Two city councillors, and two criminologists, agreed.

Michael Kempa from the University of Ottawa, who studies police, said that once the situation reached this point, officers may think “We were placed in this because of bad management.”

Officer engagement is low because of ineffective leadership. This leadership has been further undermined by low officer engagement.

However, the source from police said that officers obeyed orders.

In large demonstrations, people wait for a command order. He said that the command decision is made at the executive level. According to the source, Ottawa police officers feel trapped between being hands-off and public anger over perceived inaction.

Sloly, who was dissatisfied with the police’s response to his protests last month, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sloly was an outsider and became Ottawa’s chief police officer in 2019. He promised reform, including repairing the relationships with Black communities. The police union criticized Sloly for suggesting in September 2020 that systematic racism exists in the ranks.

Eli El-Chantiry (a councillor) said Sloly didn’t stand a chance to win over his officers.

El-Chantiry did not sit on the board during his first conversation with Reuters. However, he now serves as its chair since its predecessor was removed.

Bell, interim chief of police, was asked by a board member last month why his response was “inadequate”. He also inquired if officers supported the convoy. Bell said that they are looking into it.

Ottawa Police refused to tell Reuters the number of officers being investigated by them for their complicity in the convoy.

The board resigned three members this week after reports that one of them attended protests. El-Chantiry however stated that the member had done so on the first weekend, and informed El-Chantiry. He promised to issue a statement.