Don’t throw police under convoy: officer
Police inspector urges politicians to show restraint, hold off on insults when dealing with protests
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The officer in charge of response to the local so-called freedom convoy protest a year ago has shared with municipal officials lessons Winnipeg police learned about dealing with protesters, counter-protesters, politicians and the public.
“Lesson learned: don’t call them ‘the lunatic fringe with unacceptable views,’ because that gets people’s backs up,” Insp. Gord Spado told the crowd of about 300 on Friday at the Manitoba Disaster Management Conference in Winnipeg.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously referred to the anti-pandemic public health measures protesters as a “small fringe minority” with “unacceptable views.”
In Winnipeg, the noisy three-week-long occupation of Memorial Boulevard at Broadway in front of the Manitoba legislature ended peacefully — but not as quickly as many would’ve liked, Spado said in a candid hour-long presentation and Q-and-A session.
Spado recalled politicians publicly calling for the Winnipeg Police Service to remove demonstrators before the occupation even started. That didn’t help the situation, he said, urging municipal officials and politicians in the crowd to question their police service in private about its rationale for handling a situation before questioning them in public.
“Be willing to engage in conversations behind closed doors before you start second-guessing and throwing your police service under the bus — start asking questions about why is this happening the way it is,” Spado said.
If those conversations had happened last year, it could have alleviated a lot of concerns, especially for the public, he said.
“The minute you go public, that changes everyone’s perspective of what’s going on: ‘If elected officials aren’t happy, something is going wrong here.’”
The Feb. 4 to 23, 2022, protest ended up costing the City of Winnipeg close to $400,000, including roughly $100,000 in police overtime, he said.
Police received 184 noise complaints related to the site.
Negotiating with the protesters rather than arresting them for noise bylaw or Highway Traffic Act violations kept the situation from escalating, Spado said.
“If I go in there to issue somebody a ticket for any of those offences and they refuse to identify themselves, our only option is to arrest in order to identify them — you can’t back out,” he said.
“When you’ve got a crowd with a cohesive cause, you now risk being surrounded and escalating to physical force because they will defend their person because they have a common cause.
“That’s something we try to avoid in crowd dynamics. If we’re going to do a crowd escalation like that, and issue tickets, we have to be prepared with enough resources and manpower to actually escalate that to an all-out fight. We weren’t prepared to do that at that time.”
Police were trying to keep a lid on simmering tensions, he said.
Spado showed the crowd aerial drone photos of what he referred to as “surge Saturday,” a week into the occupation.
That day, all four lanes of Broadway were jammed with trucks and vehicles and a pro-convoy crowd of 500 had gathered. Extra police were on hand to prevent a showdown between it and up to 300 counter-protesters at the legislature.
Crowd-management teams were staged inside the legislative building with their equipment and ready to exit out the side door, Spado said. Outside, the counter-protesters were diverted to the front steps of the building away from the other demonstrators.
At the end of surge Saturday the biggest ruckus involved two intoxicated people blocking traffic, who were taken by police from the scene, Spado said.
In the third week, after protests at Coutts, Alta., Emerson and Ottawa wound down, Spado was directed to develop a plan to dismantle the occupation in Winnipeg.
Police liaised with Crown attorneys and its own warrant unit, then met with convoy leaders, telling them they had to vacate by 5 p.m. on Feb. 23.
Officer zip-tied laminated letters to offending vehicles to make sure owners got the message: move it or lose it through criminal forfeiture.
“Somebody who’s got a $200,000 (semi-trailer truck), they’re not going to want that. This is something we had in our back pocket,” Spado said.
Finding large tow trucks to potentially remove such vehicles was another story.
“It was a bigger challenge because the tow truck companies wanted nothing to do with this,” Spado said.
He recalled one hesitant towing company owner telling police how they had to appear neutral to big-rig operators: “We built our business on these people and we can’t be seen to be part of this.”
Police asked Winnipeg Transit if it had a big tow truck to spare. In the end, protesters moved their own vehicles.
Knowing the Emergencies Act had been put into effect by Parliament, giving authorities more power to remove protesters, provided some reassurance, said Spado.
“If we had no resources to do it and Transit wasn’t able to help us, I don’t know how we would’ve done it without the Emergencies Act.”
It was revoked after the Ottawa occupation was dismantled.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2023 12:47 PM CST: Changes to revoked from repealed