Police response to 'Freedom Convoy' dominates Ottawa Police Services Board meeting
The aftermath of the "Freedom Convoy" demonstration that occupied downtown Ottawa dominated discussions during Monday's Ottawa Police Services Board meeting.
The board that oversees the Ottawa Police Service is meeting at Ottawa City Hall. More than a dozen people signed up to speak to the board in-person and they were critical of the police response to the three-week occupation.
This was the first meeting since Feb. 24, as police continued to work to secure the downtown core following the protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health measures.
Items on the agenda included the chief's verbal report by Interim Chief Steve Bell, a request for an independent review by the auditor general into the "Freedom Convoy" demonstration and the recruitment process for a new chief.
The meeting came two days after the "Next Generation" convoy rolled through downtown Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Interim police chief Steve Bell told Newstalk 580 CFRA on Monday that police considered not allowing the most recent convoy protesters downtown.
"We looked at every possible scenario that we could in order to manage it, including the potential of not allowing them to come," he told Ottawa at Work guest-host Graham Richardson. "There was many mitigation strategies put in place over the weekend, and they did seem to be effective to move the group through the city and out."
The police service was publicly criticized for telling counter-protesters they were "hindering the safe flow of traffic."
Bell addressed the point in response to questions following his verbal report.
"That tweet was directly identified to identify what the members on the ground saw was a safety concern," Bell said. "We had set up a route and allowed for no stopping because we knew our concern would be around stopping of those vehicles as they moved through the city. The engagement of other demonstrators in the street was allowing or forcing the stopping of vehicles, which is something we didn't want to see. It also was creating extreme safety concerns for those engaging in those demonstrations."
Bell said he understands the concerns of frustrations of the community, but the police service is responsible with keeping everyone safe, including the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. He said the service would review the communications but added it's also important to get timely information out to the public.
The board approved a motion from board chair El-Chantiry to ask the city's auditor general to conduct a review of the Ottawa Police Service's overall response to the "Freedom Convoy" protest.
The motion asks the auditor general to review several areas, including the incident command structure, the police service's board role and responsibilities to handle major events and crisis management, operational approaches and readiness, enforcement strategies and whether systemic issues within the OPS "such as racism or anti-vaccination sentiment" compromised the police response to the protest.
Council approved a motion on Feb. 7 to conduct an independent review of the response to the occupation.
Last week, Interim Chief Bell told a parliamentary committee police were caught off-guard by the size of the protest, saying the original intelligence police had forecasted a "much smaller footprint" of people.
"What ultimately ended up on our streets, in terms of scope and scale—geographical footprint—was not consistent with what we believed would occur," he said.
“It turned from what would have been a demonstration to an illegal occupation very early.”
Fifteen people signed up to speak as public delegations regarding the review into the police response; however, delegates noted that there were more than 80 people who had planned to speak to the board before it was moved to an in-person model with no opportunity to connect remotely.
NEW BOARD MEMBERS
There are now seven new members on the Ottawa Police Services Board, following the high-profile resignations and dismissals from the board during the "Freedom Convoy" demonstration.
On Friday, the province appointed Salim Fakirani, Peter Henschel and Michael Doucet to the board. They replace the three provincial appointees to the board, who resigned earlier this month.
Before that, council voted to replace Coun. Diane Deans as chair of the board with Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, a former chair. That move came after Deans spearheaded bringing in a new chief immediately after Chief Peter Sloly resigned in February.
Other members of the board, including councillors Rawlson King and Carol Anne Meehan, resigned in protest over Deans's removal. Council appointed Coun. Jeff Leiper and Cathy Curry to the board, along with citizen appointee Suzanne Valiquet.
Valiquet was named the new vice-chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board at Monday's meeting.
SEARCH FOR A NEW CHIEF
The board approved a plan to launch the search for a new police chief following the reviews into the "Freedom Convoy" demonstration.
In a report for Monday's board meeting, staff recommend the Ottawa Police Services Board cancel the recruitment process for a third deputy chief that began in January, and focus its efforts on filling existing vacancies for chief and deputy chief.
The process of finding a new police chief will involve hiring search firm Odgers Berndtson to support the Board in its search, at a cost of approximately $95,800, not including HST, out-of-pocket expenses, or third-party costs related to community consultation.
Coun. Jeff Leiper was the only board member to vote against the plan. He had expressed a desire to wait until after the municipal election in October to hire a new chief.
Monday's meting was the Ottawa Police Services Board's first in-person meeting in two years.
The number of attendees was limited to board members and staff, select Ottawa Police Service members, media and public delegations.
"Public delegations who do not wish to appear in-person will be invited to submit their comments in writing, for distribution to the Board," said a note from the board on Friday.
However, several citizens who spoke at the meeting expressed disappointment in a lack of a hybrid model, which would have allowed members of the public to present their delegation remotely.
City Council met last Wednesday in-person but had capacity to allow councillors to access via Zoom, and some did.
El-Chantiry said Wednesday's hybrid council meeting was "labour intensive" and the police board is working to get more clarity about holding hybrid meetings.
He said he hopes to know whether board meetings can be held in a hybrid format by the next meeting.