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Police chief defends strategy during three-week-long downtown occupation

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Winnipeg’s police chief is pushing back against criticism anti-mandate protesters who occupied parts of downtown last month were shown more patience and treated differently than others might have been.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/03/2022 (336 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg’s police chief is pushing back against criticism anti-mandate protesters who occupied parts of downtown last month were shown more patience and treated differently than others might have been.

The nearly three-week-long demonstration that had Broadway traffic snarled and Memorial Boulevard blocked entirely ended Feb. 23, after police issued an ultimatum to pack up or face charges of mischief, intimidation or other offences under the Criminal Code.

Police also warned demonstrators their vehicles could be seized and be subject to forfeiture, Highway Traffic Act violations and bylaw offences for excessive noise. Some protesters remained in a Memorial Park camp.

Protesters block the entrance to the Manitoba Legislative Building on Broadway Avenue and park their trucks along Memorial Boulevard on Feb. 4, the beginning of a weeks-long demonstration. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Demonstrators began their occupation in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building Feb. 4, calling for an end to COVID-19 pandemic public health restrictions and vaccine and mask mandates imposed by federal and provincial governments.

“If we can bring something (to) a resolution peacefully without resorting to use of force or mass arrests, that’s going to be our first priority,” Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth told the Free Press in an interview Wednesday.

“In this instance, I think we made enough progress with the organizers through the use of our liaison teams, through negotiations, that it warranted that specific tactic continuing without having to resort to use of force or mass arrest.”

Smyth said he believes police achieved their three main objectives: to keep traffic on Broadway and York Avenue moving, limit the size of the demonstration’s footprint to Memorial Boulevard and the adjacent park, and curb “insidious noise.”

People living and working nearby complained of excessive, consistent noise and engine smells from the large trucks used in the blockade.

The demonstrators later agreed to curb times they’d sound vehicle horns.

“I can’t speak enough for the community and what they had to endure,” Smyth said. “I wish we could’ve resolved this sooner. They put up with the brunt of it.

“Having said that, I’m very pleased with the way our team executed what really is a national framework for police preparedness on demonstrations. They followed that playbook.”

Asked whether he thinks officers treated the group differently than Indigenous or Black Lives Matter protests — as suggested in criticism levelled by many on social media and from some prominent politicians — Smyth was direct.

“I do not. Our approach is pretty consistent, it has been for a number of years, but I do think that some of the reporting, particularly on social media, there was this perception that we were supportive of the protesters,” he said.

“I think what you were seeing was the work of the liaison teams that were just trying to keep that rapport going and trying to use their influence to deal with some of the issues.”

The WPS faced criticism over the temporary detainment of two people (who appeared Indigenous) under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act “for their safety,” due to traffic concerns during a counter protest Feb. 12.

Police had initially allowed the counter demonstrators to block vehicles, but they were detained after moving to where police weren’t controlling traffic, the Free Press was told at the time.

Mayor Brian Bowman also criticized police for the length of the anti-mandate demonstration.

Smyth said he recognized the demonstration and its cause — which he did not support — was unpopular with the majority of people living and working in the area.

He said criticism levelled over the WPS Twitter account referring to the demonstration as the “Freedom Convoy” was due to that unpopularity.

“You had the overwhelming masses against this — the notion that it was called a ‘freedom convoy,’ people found that to be insidious. I don’t understand it, I don’t support the cause, yet people have the right to gather and have their voice heard,” the police chief said.

“I know for myself, I think I called it the ‘convoy protest’ whenever I referred to it in writing, but I think we’re reading too much into that — it wasn’t a show of support.”

Smyth’s interview with the Free Press came one day after the WPS launched a Substack, which is an online newsletter platform that allows self-publishing. Smyth noted the Substack isn’t monetized and will not be.

Smyth and Supt. Dave Dalal, special events commander, penned posts about the weeks-long demonstration and how police responded to it.

erik.pindera@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @erik_pindera

Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera
Reporter

Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.

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Updated on Thursday, March 3, 2022 4:10 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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