Letter from the Witness Group to the Chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board

Witness Group / Le Groupe témoin
Protect the Right to Protest / Protegéons le droit de manifester

Mr. Herb Kreling, Chair
Police Services Board

October 1, 2002

Dear Mr. Kreling,

On behalf of the Witness Group, thank you for the opportunity to appear the Police Services Board on September 23. Witnesses remain ready to dialogue with all stakeholders, including the police, activists, and all members of the community toward a model of policing for major events in Ottawa which achieves the proper balance between upholding the security of persons and property and protecting the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Witnesses believe that a community-based model of policing is imperative to achieving this balance and to the success of these events.

As was noted during our presentation, Witnesses are committed to answering the questions posed by police during a public meeting on July 17 by October 1. We are pleased to provide you and all members of the Police Services Board with copies of these answers for your information. As we noted on September 23, since we are a publicly accountable group, we are posting these answers on our website (www.witnessgroup.rogers.ca) and welcome public comment and discussion.

While we appreciated the opportunity to appear before the Board, unfortunately Witnesses are disconcerted and disturbed by certain incidents which transpired during our appearance. For example:

1. It was stated by the police that they were unable to comment on specific questions from Witnesses both in our July 16 report and those which were asked of the police during the July 17 police-sponsored public meeting. We understand that the police are in the process of preparing answers to these questions and that these answers will be posted on the Ottawa Police website soon. If the police were unable to answer questions from Witnesses and from the community at the September 23 meeting, why were they in a position to answer questions from the Board about the issue of 246 Gilmour St.? And why, given that we were appearing before the Board, were Witnesses not allowed to respond? There are extremely serious issues surrounding the use of force, in particular the use of pepper spray ? which has potentially lethal effects. It is unacceptable that Witnesses were not allowed to respond to this question.

2. It was stated during the meeting that there is essentially no difference between videotaping by news media at a sports event and the constant videotaping by police of demonstrators. Even with the caveat of playing devil's advocate, it is obvious that the news media do not have the ability to use complied footage to contain people's movements (e.g., prevent them from crossing the border) or potentially target them for arrest. Given that this issue is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada, we sincerely hope that the Police Services Board recognizes the seriousness of this issue and will consider appropriate policy recommendations in light of this.

3. It was implied that Witnesses are not objective since we do not report on the behaviour of protesters at demonstrations, and that we condone unacceptable behaviour from demonstrators which may occur. As was stated very clearly at the meeting, Witnesses do not condone unacceptable behaviour from anyone. As we noted during the meeting, we view our role as observers during demonstrations within a larger public accountability framework as akin to an audit function. As the basis for our work, we have studied and use international covenants, Ontario provincial guidelines, and the Ottawa Police's own policies, including the Agenda for Excellence, which we support. As the Board is aware, when an organization is audited, the auditors do not also audit the customers of the goods and services that this organization is providing

4. It was stated by the police that Witnesses had "interfered" with the work of the police. In response, the following should be emphasized:

? As was stated at the meeting, Witnesses are a publicly accountable group. We held public meetings and public training sessions while organizing and made our observations public. If any Witness has not adhered to our mandate then we want to know about it. We remain ready to receive specific information from the police concerning this allegation so that we may follow up.

? Some police officers, especially those outside the MELT team, may not have been familiar with our goals and tactics. They may have misinterpreted our need to be close to any interactions between police and demonstrators so that we could observe. Witnesses are trained to request police identification if it was absent or not observable. That may have been interpreted as interference by some officers. It should be noted that we encourage members to ask for identification in a courteous manner, and to only seek the facts.

? Finally, it is one thing to have questions or concerns about how Witnesses do our job. It is quite another to question the very presence of Witnesses and to try to impede Witnesses from observing interactions between the police and demonstrators. Unfortunately this was the case during our observations of police actions during the removal of protesters at 246 Gilmour. If the police were confident that their actions were in accordance with their policies, why did officers attempt to block the view of Witnesses observing these events?

5. It was stated by police during the September meeting that the questions asked by police at the July 17 police-sponsored meeting were asked to members of the community and "not to Witnesses". We trust that it is not the position of the Ottawa Police that Witnesses are not members of the community. We attended the July 17 police-sponsored meeting as deeply concerned citizens wanting to advance a community-based model of policing. We sincerely hope that it is not the position of either the Ottawa Police or the Police Services Board that Witnesses are not welcome at police-sponsored public meetings.

6. It was stated at the September meeting that Witnesses "do not understand the police". As was noted during the September 23 meeting, Witnesses did not appear before the Police Services Board to slam the police. We are keenly aware that police have a difficult, sometimes dangerous and often thankless job. Our aim has been to encourage improvements in the policing of major events, and we have publicly noted these improvements. Having said this, there are serious issues which remain in need of examination and discussion concerning the policing of G-8 events in Ottawa. It is our sincere hope that neither the Police Services Board nor the Ottawa Police believe, as publicly accountable institutions, believe that you are immune of constructive criticism from the members of the public.

7. As you will remember, Witness Group representatives are not initially allowed to respond to any of the above points and had to interject at the end of the meeting in order to respond quickly to some of the above points. We do not think that this was appropriate.

As Witnesses, we take our role very seriously and have acted with courtesy and professionalism (even though we are volunteers) to all stakeholders, including the police. We trust that this will be reciprocated.

Thank you for your review of this letter. I look forward to your response.


Aileen Leo
Member, Witness Group

cc:  Members of the Witness Group
  All members of the Police Services Board