Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What Happened At Toronto's G20 Kettle, According To The RCMP

When the Mounties got to Queen & Spadina, the kettling had already started. About half an hour earlier, the Toronto Police Service — who were in charge of everything outside the G20 fence — had given the order to "box in" everyone at the intersection and arrest them all for "conspiracy to commit mischief." The RCMP unit, who were assisting them, arrived at about 6pm; protesters and passers-by would be kept there, in the street, in the rain, surrounded by police in riot gear, without any possible exit, without food or water or access to a washroom, for hours to come. The Mounties would help keep them there. They would kettle them despite the fact that RCMP policy forbid them from kettling anyone. And that they weren't trained to do it. And that some officers were openly questioning the orders.

That's all according to a report from the RCMP Public Complaints Commission — it was released in May of 2012, almost two years after the G20 summit turned downtown Toronto into an armed camp patrolled by nearly 20,000 police officers. The Commission, meant to "hold the RCMP accountable to the public," investigated a series of complaints against the Mounties, including what happened during the kettling at Queen & Spadina.

According to the report, things were already confusing by the time the RCMP arrived on the scene. They couldn't, for instance, find the on-site Commander — for two whole hours. The RCMP's own Commander — knowing that kettling was against RCMP policy, unable to find the on-site Commander — confirmed the order with the Toronto Police command centre and finally agreed to help with the kettle. He didn't talk to anyone higher up at the RCMP. "In the absence of somebody telling me what to do," the Commander explained to the Commission, "we just worked it out amongst ourselves."

His Mounties marched into the crowd, splitting the kettle in half. Over the next two hours, they would play their part alongside the Toronto Police Service and the OPP, surrounding 300 people with a wall of shields and riot gear. Not a single person who was kept in the kettle and was later interviewed by the Commission said they had heard any kind of warning to clear the area before they were surrounded. Many had been peaceful protesters; others were just curious onlookers. Some were local residents, out walking their dogs or getting ice cream. Scores of them would be arrested. YouTube footage showed how some of the arrests happened: a sudden break in the wall of riot gear, an officer rushing forward to grab someone from behind, roughly dragging them out of the kettle as they scream in terror, and then the row of riot police closing in again. 

According to the report, during the two hours the Mounties assisted with the kettle, they arrested five people. The RCMP Commander told the Commission they were arrested "because it was felt that they may pose a risk". What he didn't tell the Commission was that two of those five people turned out to be undercover police officers. He later explained that he didn't think that information was "significant".

He also didn't shed any light on the specific justifications for those particular arrests — whether the undercover police officers really were doing something that could "pose a risk," or whether they were arrested without just cause. The notes of the officers who did the arresting weren't any help: they hadn't even bothered to take down the names of the people they were arresting, never mind recording the fact that they were accidentally arresting fellow officers. According to the report, "It was only through an inadvertent comment that the Commission was made aware of the incident."

Toronto Police along Queen the day before the kettle
Finally, at about 8pm, the RCMP managed to track down the on-site Commander1. By then, even the riot police were soaked from standing in the downpour. The Mounties asked to leave so they would have time to dry out their equipment before heading home to Vancouver in the morning. Their request was granted; they left. When the RCMP Commander asked why — with the G20 pretty much over — people were still being held in the kettle, he was told the Toronto Police were still planning on arresting them all.

According to news reports, it would be another two hours before Toronto's Police Chief, Bill Blair, ordered that anyone still under arrest at Queen & Spadina should be released. By the time they were let go, nearly five hours had passed since the kettling had started. And many of those who had been held would continue to suffer for years to come: from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks, estranged from friends and family members who refused to believe their story, their faith in Canadian justice deeply shaken.

A year later, the Toronto Police would promise never to kettle anyone ever again.

But kettling wasn't the only issue investigated by the RCMP Complaints Commissioner. The Mounties, according his report, were not involved in much activity outside the fence — they weren't the ones attacking protesters at Queen's Park, arresting people without warrants at the University of Toronto, or running the detention centre on Eastern Avenue. But as the police force with "primary responsibility" for general security at all international conferences, the Mounties were heavily involved in the planning for the event. And the report raises plenty of questions about that planning2.

It was rushed. And the Commission found that the various police forces involved didn't do enough to coordinate their operations. At the G8, for instance, which was held outside Toronto just before the G20, they had co-organized everything and put together a joint "Concept of Operations" document. Neither of those things was done for the G20 and it caused major problems — like the confusion around the RCMP's involvement in the kettling3. The RCMP Commander at Queen & Spadina wasn't clear on what he was supposed to do, disconnected from the Mounties' chain-of-command. They hadn't addressed the kettling question in the lead up to the event even though it was one of the highest profile issues heading into Toronto's G20 — there had been an inquiry into the use of a kettle by the London police during the G20 held in England the year before

And yet somehow, despite all of this, the report clears the RCMP of responsibility. The Complaints Commissioner concludes that "on balance" they did "a pretty good job." Their actions "were, in a general sense, reasonable and appropriate." The planning "was robust and thorough."  There was "attention paid to ensuring the rights of demonstrators." And the Complaints Commissioner's conclusions were echoed in headlines all over the country. The CBC: "report clears RCMP." CTV: "RCMP acted reasonably." The National Post: "Report exonerates RCMP."

Some of the report's recommendations make those conclusions sound particularly strange. The report says the RCMP should "make best efforts to establish, together with its partners, clear operational guidelines prior to an event where integrated policing will occur." It also reminds them that "there is at least some onus on the RCMP to ensure that any actions taken—even at the command of another police force—have a reasonable basis in law and some justification from a policing perspective." What the Commissioner doesn't explain is how a lack of "clear operational guidelines" and failure to ensure their actions had "a reasonable basis in law" can still be called "a pretty good job."

Spadina, south of Queen, on the day before
Of course, there's plenty of reason to believe that the Complaints Commissioner didn't know what he was talking about. Mostly because when he got the job, he told reporters that he didn't know what he was talking about.

The RCMP Complaints Commissioner used to be a man by the name of Paul Kennedy. He was a career civil servant with 35 years of relevant experience, including time working with CSIS (the Canadian intelligence agency). He was reappointed by Stephen Harper's Conservatives when they first came to power and initially everything seemed to be going well. His contract was renewed every year; the Conservatives praised his "commitment to achieving excellence in policing through enhanced accountability." They even promised to expand his powers.

But then, he said some things the Conservatives didn't like. He suggested the Mounties shouldn't be allowed to police themselves when they killed or injured someone. He investigated claims they might have illegally helped Harper win the 2006 election. And that they were barring liberals from Conservative events during the 2011 election. When four Mounties tasered a man to death at the Vancouver airport, Kennedy released a scathing report, laying out a long list of all the mistakes they had made. When they tasered a fifteen year-old girl while she was lying handcuffed on the floor being held down by three officers (and then tried to cover it up, and then investigated and cleared themselves for it), he released another scathing report. He complained when the Conservatives slashed the Complaints Commission budget. And he complained, over and over again, when the RCMP refused to cooperate with his investigations, wouldn't answer his questions, wouldn't allow him see documents, and took years to respond to his requests. More than anything, he complained that he didn't actually have any real power to hold the RCMP accountable at all.

So he was replaced. Harper's government let Kennedy go and in his place they appointed a man by the name of Ian McPhail. (He is still the Chair of the Commission today.) McPhail's background was in real estate and wills. He had no experience with criminal law or civilian oversight. As he explained to reporters when he was hired, "Look, you probably know more about the background there than I do."

But he did happen to be a long-time Conservative ally, with ties to the party going all the way back to the 1970s. When Mike Harris wanted to chip away at environmental regulations, he appointed Ian McPhail as Chair of the Environmental Review Tribunal. When he wanted to chip away at public broadcasting, he named Ian McPhail as the head of TVO. And when Harper wanted to curb criticism of the RCMP, he named Ian McPhail as the RCMP watchdog3. And he did it right around the same time that he announced the G20 would be coming to Toronto.

Still, even the most experienced and objective Complaints Commissioner would have trouble holding the RCMP to account. As McPhail's report points out, the RCMP Act "does not require the RCMP to cooperate with a Commission public interest investigation." It was the RCMP who got to "[set] out the conditions under which the Commission would be permitted to view RCMP documentation" and "crafted a protocol" for viewing them. Almost all of the information McPhail refers to in his report comes from the RCMP themselves: from interviews with officers (who, as we've seen, didn't always include significant information they claimed to be insignificant) and the notes they took (which the report repeatedly mentions as being inadequate and poorly prepared). One RCMP officer refused to talk to the Commission altogether4.

Police along Queen Street the day before
So in the end, the report's greatest contribution is to highlight all of the ways in which the report is woefully inadequate. The Commission could only interview Mounties who wanted to talk, could only see RCMP documents the RCMP wanted to share, and relied on notes that were never taken, or were incorrectly taken, or were poorly organized. It was put together by an inexperienced Complaints Commissioner with no relevant background in this kind of law, with deep political ties to a ruling party that has been accused of their own improper ties to the RCMP. (In fact, one of jobs of the report was to look for evidence the Conservatives had inappropriately interfered with summit security.5) The report couldn't address questions about the RCMP's undercover intelligence gathering because they were currently being sued over it. And maybe most importantly, the report could only address the RCMP's role — one part of a massive operation involving 20,000 police officers from many different police forces and questionable decisions made by three different levels of government.

There is a lot to investigate. In the first two years after the G20, there were at least ten separate reports launched into the police actions during the summit, all of them with their own specific concerns. (Ontario's police watchdog released his own report just a week before the RCMP report, slamming the police forces involved for using "excessive force," having "ignored basic rights citizens have under the charter," adopting inflammatory rhetoric6, and making "unlawful" arrests. That watchdog called what happened at Queen & Spadina "unreasonable and unnecessary.") But none of them had the power to investigate the entire story7. Many of the reports point to problems with the way the police forces worked together, but none of them was able to fully examine those overarching issues — or the fundamental decisions that may have caused them.

That's why groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called for a full public inquiry into security at the G20. They've demanded a comprehensive investigation of exactly what happened, who made what decisions, and which decisions were the right ones and which were the wrong ones — all the way from the Prime Minster's Office down to the frontlines at Queen & Spadina. They want an explanation of how we got to a point where violent anarchists ran free through the streets, police cars burned, and more than 1,100 people were arrested8. Because a full investigation, from top to bottom, with real power, led by an experienced and impartial Commissioner, is the only way to truly learn what happened. And we're going to have to learn what happened if we want to make sure it never happens again.

Five years later, we're still waiting.



You can read the full RCMP Complaint Commission report here. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association's response is here.

To read the footnotes, hover your cursor over them.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Little Red Umbrella in 2012.

All photos by Adam Bunch.

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