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OIPRD’s Assessment of the G20: A Good but Marred Effort

Two years later, we finally have OIPRD's comprehensive assessment of police action during the G20. It's a report that tries to be fair to all sides, but ends up being too generous to police on some key points.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair after today's police board meeting.

So, almost two years later, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) has finally released its comprehensive Systemic Review Report of what went down, policing-wise, at the 2010 G20 summit. The report attempts to comprehensively study and address all of the police overreaching that occurred during the G20 weekend. At 286 pages, this is a lot of comprehensiveness. And it is not a bad assessment of things.

It does, however, suffer from some significant flaws.

The summaries of events are reasonably fair to all parties—police overreach is frequently noted, although there is an undercurrent of protester-blame throughout the work. The report never explicitly states that the actions of protesters justified police overreaction, but at times it does attempt to equate protester activity with police activity. For example, when discussing police use of profanity directed at protesters, it points out that protesters were being terribly profane with police—to which a not unreasonable response is “yes, but we don’t actually pay protesters to not swear at people when they’re protesting, you see, whereas we do pay police to not escalate the situation.”

There is also an attempt to recognize that non-commanding police were frustrated with both protesters’ antics and the lack of organized command in their own ranks, which does not entirely jibe with my experiences with police during the G20. (Then again, “anecdote” is not the singular of “data” for a reason, and one writer’s experience or even the entire Torontoist staff’s experience during the G20 is not necessarily emblematic of what went down across the board).

The analysis is generally thorough and addresses current civil liberties statutory/constitutional law, as well as notable case law on the topics in question. It is quite readable (honestly, portions of it read like a criminal procedure legal textbook—which is intended as a compliment) and provides a balanced outlook on the current state of civil liberties law.

OIPRD’s conclusions are stern, to say the least. The Toronto Police Service’s plans for the G20 are called out for being massively inadequate and incomplete: the report doesn’t actually use the word “incompetent” at any point, but its findings definitely lean in that direction with respect to the police’s organizational skills. The many failures of the TPS to properly prepare for the G20 are called out for being just that: failures. With respect to on-the-ground actions, the report, while still trying to address the officers on the line respectfully, states that many police used excessive force and/or rhetoric and served to escalate the conflict both by being antagonistic to protesters and by being hostile to people who might otherwise have been uninvolved and thus drawing them into the conflict. Senior police commanders’ overreaction during the G20 weekend is also described in harsh terms—night shift Incident Commander Superintendent Mark Fenton in particular receives a lot of criticism for his performance.

We also note that by describing the process as one where both sides escalated the conflict, as the report does frequently, it places blame on all parties—again serving to effectively reduce police responsibility for their overreach. We are not unsympathetic to the notion that police were baited into overreaction by protesters, because, well, protesters during the G20 did that quite a bit. But again: police are paid not to overreact, and the report errs too frequently in favour of sympathy for the TPS.

The strongest condemnations are of the Prisoner Processing Centre, where the lack of police organization and failure to even make sure prisoners were able to go to the bathroom adequately—let alone book them properly, or feed them adequately, or make sure they had appropriate access to counsel/telephones—are called out for being the gross violations of civil rights that they were. The PPC was, bluntly, a Mickey Mouse attempt at temporary detention, and deserves all the condemnation it gets.

However, we suspect that most of those greatly offended by the G20 actions will not be terribly enthused by the report’s recommendations, which are primarily concerned with planning and officer education for “future events.” There are some concrete suggestions regarding tactics (the report strongly advocates for stopping the use of flex-cuffs in all but the most extreme situations, for example) and also demands that senior police officers “should not condone” misconduct by colleagues, but there is something frankly disheartening when a report of this nature takes as a given that future events akin to the G20 summit “may lead to mass arrests in the future” and that police services should plan accordingly.

On the other hand, the report is not wrong to point out that better communication between police and protesters can serve to greatly reduce conflict. That was evident during the dismantling of Occupy Toronto’s camp back in November and the OIRPD’s reiteration of this need is encouraging. But does that compensate for the assumption that mass arrests are just something that will have to happen at large-scale protests in future?

In the end? It’s a government review that tries to be fair to everybody. The problem in this instance, though, is that it is not exactly possible to be fair to everybody. As the report itself notes, record-keeping during the G20 was a horrible mess (the report admits that even now it cannot be sure how many people were even arrested) and police were frequently unidentifiable, which means that any hard count of complaints lodged and errors made by police will be skewed downwards in the absence of that hard data which cannot, strictly speaking, be called “lost” because it was never collected in the first place. And when that’s the case, being fair to everybody is sometimes being too generous to some.

Even though this report is perhaps slightly too generous to the police and less so to the protesters, following the laying of disciplinary actions against some police officers as a result of this report, you’re probably going to see a large number of lawsuits against the police and government settling in the near future. (Or, rather, you won’t, because that’s how settlements usually work.) Why? Because even though the report tries to play the middle ground, it cannot deny—and to its credit, does not try to deny—that based on existing law, what people have been saying all along: namely, that TPS’s actions during the G20 weekend were grossly unlawful and violated the protesters’ Charter rights. This is the report’s great contradiction: it recognizes the unlawfulness of the police’s activity during the G20 weekend, but then assumes that such activity will be required in future anyway, and that violations of constitutional rights can be avoided simply by adequate preparation—which seems very much like wishful thinking.

Photos by Giordano Ciampini.

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