Mike Hinds, Centretown News, April 11, 2003
Witness group keeps police in check
By Ryan Cormier
The images are familiar. Protesters marching down the street, voices raised and signs held high, under the watchful eye of police. Shoving matches. Arrests. Pepper spray.
The relationship between protesters and police has been visibly adversarial at times, but there are people working to identify the causes of conflict between the two groups and solve them.
Aileen Leo is a member of the Ottawa Witness Group, a team of observers that watches police action during protests. She says the relationship between protesters and police hit a low during the November 2001 G-20 protests.
“During those demonstrations, there was some untoward behaviour by the police,” she says. “Ottawa, being the capital, has demonstrations all the time. This one indicated a change in behaviour on the part of the police.”
Ottawa Police did not return phone calls to comment .
After the protests, citizen complaints against the police included physical intimidation, physically aggressive action, police dog bites, unlawful arrests and officers wearing riot gear instead of regular uniforms.
A citizens’ panel was formed, including Leo, to look at the complaints. The Ottawa Police declined to take part in the panel, preferring to merely observe it instead.
The panel released a report on the situation shortly after the police put out a report on improving crowd policing.
The reports emphasized communication between protesters and police, the need to re-establish trust between the and a stricter observance to rules on arrests and crowd policing.
“The police laid out all sorts of issues pertaining to the policing of major events,” Leo says. “It was a good start, but it would have been nice to see some more community consultations for that.”
Today, police say they are trying to take public response into account.
“Every time there is an event, we mark it up as a learning experience,” says Sgt. Kristine Cholette, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Provincial Police. “Whatever public criticism we do get, we obviously listen to it and then analyze what has occurred to cause that criticism. And then we’ll use that as a learning tool for the next time.”
Cholette says she believes communication between activists and police before large events is key. “It goes very well, I believe, if both sides are open. Police will say, this is the limit of the law. This is what you can expect to happen if you go over that line. Demonstrators can say, this is what we want to happen, which goes a long way, because we can assist them.”
Not everyone is interested in police assistance. Michael DesRoches of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty says he doesn’t think communication with police is in activists’ best interests.
“Almost every time we organize a demonstration, the police try to communicate with us beforehand. It’s generally aimed at either trying to dissuade us from going through with plans or attempting to gain some sort of control or insight into our plans. So those communications have generally not gone too far.”
DesRoches says the police shouldn’t have any presence at protests at all. “We just wish the police wouldn’t come. We recognize the relationship between the police and demonstrations as an antagonistic one.”
Cholette says the police do have a role to play.
“We’re looking to keep the crowd as calm as possible, that’s the main focus,” she says. “If we find there are certain people breaking certain laws, we’ll make sure that’s taken care of. But generally, it’s just to make sure everyone stays calm when there’s a large public gathering.”
Cholette doesn’t see the relationship between the two groups as adversarial.
“We do not go in there in an aggressive manner, wanting to stir things up. That’s the last thing we want. Demonstrators usually outnumber police by numerous factors. The last thing we want to do is get into a confrontation.”
Since its inception after the G-20 protests, the Ottawa Witness group has observed events, including the the July eviction of the squatters on Gilmour Street
Despite improvements in police behaviour, Leo still has some concerns. Among them, not every police officer is wearing proper identification during protests. Without identification protesters have no way of filing a complaint against an officer.
Intrusive videotaping of protesters has been used at demonstrations, and although it is now done from a distance, it still bothers Leo. The use of force in the eviction on Gilmour Street also concerned the Ottawa Witness Group.
But she is optimistic that things are improving, particularly with the “excellent job” the Ottawa Police’s Major Events Liaison Team— a unit trained for demonstrations s— is doing.
“To be fair to the police, I think they have done a very good job over the last few months in regards to the increasing frequency of demonstrations. In numerous instances, the police have actually been very helpful,” she says. “We’re very pleased to see that.”