The Witness Group answers four questions from the police - September 30, 2002

Note: The responses to these questions have been drafted and approved by the Witness Group (Ottawa). It should be noted that Witness Group members were one group amongst several different groups represented at a police-sponsored public meeting on July 17, 2002, where these questions were first posed to the community. These answers represent the views of the Witness Group only. We are posting our answers to these questions on our website to invite comment and stimulate discussion from everyone who participated in the July 17 meeting and other stakeholders. Witnesses welcome feedback concerning our responses to these questions. If you would like to comment, please send us an e-mail at: witnessgroup.rogers.com.

Note: Police responses to questions at the July 17, 2002 public meeting were made available in October 2002. Police Response.

Question 1 [Deputy Chief Larry Hill]: “What should be the threshold of civil disobedience that the community should tolerate?”

Answer:  To begin with, this question needs a little deconstruction. It is packed full of assumptions, while, at the same time, a serious fundamental issue is bypassed. To come to grips with the question, we must first address the following issues:

What is “civil disobedience”? Should the “toleration” of a community be the yardstick that guides police actions? Finally, what are appropriate levels of police response to protest, whether that protest is in the form of “civil disobedience” or not? In its phrasing and construction, however, the question does implicitly raise the issue of police culture and the wider issue of police accountability.

First of all, civil disobedience is, in a legal sense, never “acceptable”: the whole aim of civil disobedience is to break a law considered unjust, and to face the legal consequences as part of the political statement. It needs to be stressed that, for most activists, non-violence is an essential ingredient of civil disobedience, i.e., “passive resistance.”

Secondly, the “community,” if by that is meant “the majority,” as the question implies, should not define the human or civil rights of a minority. By its nature, activism is a minority activity, and its alternative visions are only accepted by the majority over time, if at all. Many in the majority, in fact, see activism as threatening, even intolerable. It is for that reason that democracy is not simply majoritarianism, but a concept that embraces alternatives, choices and rights.

The police, therefore, have a double accountability: they must serve and protect the community as a whole, and be accountable to it, while, at the same time, they must respect and uphold the civil and human rights of individuals, minorities and dissensus groups who are indeed part of that community. The police are not there to enforce majority opinion, but (ideally) to work for and with all parts of the community.

But this wider notion of community runs up against current police culture and hence police practice. The assumption that even protest not involving civil disobedience is in some manner wrong, if not criminal, was evident during the G-8 events. We observed busloads of riot police (not all that out of sight), and an overall management of the demonstrations that seemed much of the time too reminiscent of herding: motorcycles leading the way, walls of police on bicycles, and intrusive and disruptive video squads whose “in-your-face” invasion of privacy of law-abiding citizens was well over the top.

It is our observation that to members of a culture focussed too narrowly on enforcement, dissent is inherently suspect. Protest, even without civil disobedience, is incorrectly construed as a threat to the community, when in fact it is a democratic expression of public engagement and community involvement.

All this is context for the one true example of civil disobedience that occurred as part of the G-8 protest: the Gilmour Street squat. The sheer exaggeration of the police response to the peaceful occupation of an abandoned house by a handful of unarmed young people is remarkable. Up to a hundred police officers were called into action, some heavily armed, over several hours. The operation included the deployment of fire trucks, OC Transpo buses, and vans, the use of pepper-spray, confinement of one individual soaked in pepper-spray for many hours without medical attention, the imposition of absurdly restrictive bail conditions that the Crown Attorney shortly afterwards called unduly harsh, continued harassment of the youths [jaywalking tickets, verbal taunts, attempts to intimidate some of them by bogus claims that they were breaching their bail conditions by being on PSAC property by permission]—all this at a cost that, while shrouded in secrecy, probably has exceeded the value of the property in question.

The result of this massive police operation was to restore the house to its abandoned condition, prior to its demolition; to cost the taxpayers a significant amount of money; and to restore, one must suppose, a police-culture notion of “order.”

A better question than this, in fact, would be, “What levels of police response to civil disobedience are tolerable in a free and democratic society?” It would be our suggestion, at the outset, that levels of response should be dictated by the events responded to [Italics]. A massively forceful, violent approach to a non-violent event is, or should be, well past the “threshold” that any community should tolerate.

The wider issues, however, are accountability and culture. Effective mechanisms are required to assure the community—all of its constituents—that rights will be maintained at the same time as police services are provided. The individual complaints process is, judging by the annual reports to the Police Services Board, a blind alley for most, and has little credibility. And the Police Services Board itself plays the role of police protector rather than that of a genuine oversight body. The building of trust between the police and the community it serves is a slow process, and it needs some formal recourse/redress mechanisms to reassure all parties. This is all but absent at present.

The other issue, police culture, is a complex one, but we might a this point note our strong approval of community policing models that involve the whole community, that expose individual police officers to a more nuanced view of “the community,” and that employ such devices as “MELT teams” to provide meaningful liaison with demonstrators and to ensure that their right to protest is not arbitrarily interfered with.

In conclusion, then, this question is an interesting one for many reasons, and deserves the relatively lengthy response we have given it, but, as it stands, the question obscures other equally important questions that need to be answered as well.
 

Question 2 [Deputy Police Chief Larry Hill]: “Why did police not have an opportunity to sit and discuss with the Witness Group before they had their public meeting and released their report?”

Answer: The police were, in fact, provided with advance copies of the media advisory shortly before noon on July 15 and the Report shortly before noon on July 16, and in fact Deputy Chief Hill had been verbally informed the previous day that the Witness meeting was taking place on July 16 and that the police were welcome to attend what was in fact a well-advertised and open event. The police, in any event, did not take up this offer. They were hosting a meeting with the business community at the same time, but nothing would have prevented them from sending representatives to both.

That being said, it needs to be stressed that the Witnesses are an independent community body, and need to remain so to protect our integrity and our credibility. We do not draft reports to be edited either by the police or by demonstrators. We consider ourselves accountable to the community as a whole, and therefore we are prepared to respond forthrightly to comments and criticisms from all sides in the public arena. It would be highly inappropriate, in our view, to “collaborate” with other stakeholders in producing our own independent version of events.
 

Question 3 [Deputy Police Chief Larry Hill]: “How can you help police reduce the fear over public events that the public now has?”

Answer: The public has expressed various fears with respect to demonstrations. Some have expressed concern that the police themselves have made it dangerous to protest. Others have voiced fears of property damage and other acts by demonstrators.

The media have shamelessly exploited the latter fear for sensational ends. The Citizen headline, “They’re here: protesters descend on Ottawa,” really says it all. The climate of terror thus created invites an exaggerated expectation of protection, and the police are both called into, and play into, this expectation.

Both the Witnesses and the police themselves could play a useful public role by downplaying media sensationalism, reassuring the community about the nature of demonstrations and the rights of speech and assembly that all citizens enjoy, and refusing to be drawn into media-induced panic in the community.

The issuing of public reports by the Witness Group is, in our view, helpful in this process, by [among other things] providing observations that restore a sense of proportion to public perception of “major events.” While our role is not to observe the protesters per se, it is obvious that our reports of police levels of response will indirectly be a commentary on the events as a whole.

We would respectfully suggest, though, that public pronouncements by police officials expressing alarm and calling for province-wide reinforcements has proven to be part of the problem, as well as massive and visible police deployment. If criticism by the Witness Group in this respect is actually listened to by the police, then it would be fair to say we have helped them reduce public fears.

As to that element of the public dissuaded from demonstrations by fear of police actions, the very fact of the Witness Group’s existence helps, at least to some extent, to reduce that fear. We see our community role, in fact, as a moderating one.
 

Question 4 [MELT Team]: “Members of MELT believe that organizers of demonstrations should be at the table to discuss and evaluate police actions during demonstrations, e.g., what police did wrong, what they did well, and what they can do better at demonstrations. How can MELT promote better co-operation and collaboration between police and the activist community?”

Answer: The Witness Group supports on-going police-demonstrator dialogue in good faith before, during and after major events. The MELT team had enough authority to disengage uniformed officers who were involved in various incidents during the G-8 events such as attempting to seize the marchers’ sound van and searching young people at the Cenotaph. They performed, from our observations, an effective liaison role during the events, although prominent ID would have been desirable.

The MELT suggestion of a constructive post-mortem meeting is an excellent one. Moreover, the Witness Group favours meetings before major events, which for various reasons, including lack of trust in police liaison work on the part of demonstration organizers, did not take place this time. (A flawed liaison process characterised the G-20 protests in the Fall of 2001. The structure, such as it was, was overruled by higher levels of the chain of command, it was generally uncoordinated, and it resulted in the instant evaporation of understandings that the protest organizers had thought they had negotiated with the police.) The process outlined by the MELT could ideally benefit everyone, but the groundwork of trust must still be built for effective exchanges to take place.

The word “collaborate/collaboration,” however, is not ours, and such a notion will not appeal to demonstrators who believe that they are resisting an authority that they perceive the police as supporting. A more trust-building concept would be “dialogue.”

The involvement of the Witness Group, with the consent of other stakeholders, could assist this process of dialogue. We would not step out of our role in participating in such meetings. Our support of them, by virtue of our independence, could have a positive influence on the process. In fact, our own input, particularly during and after the fact, might be of assistance to the MELT team and the demonstrators in doing their post-event evaluation.

The Witness Group was pleased to see the model of community-based policing of major events, including effective liaison, outlined in the Agenda for Excellence. It is our hope that the model of policing outlined in the Agenda will be actualized through both a commitment to the principles contained in the document as well as a commitment of sufficient resources to engage in community dialogue with all stakeholders.