Industry & Transportation
City auditor criticizes Ottawa police over handling of ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests
By David Fraser and Cindy Tran
The City of Ottawa’s auditor general says police did not adequately share intelligence about last year’s “Freedom Convoy” protests, affecting the city’s ability to plan for the protests.
In reports released on Wednesday, the auditor general also found that the Ottawa Police Service did not properly engage with the city’s emergency management and traffic management offices.
Auditor general Nathalie Gougeon’s office put out three reports evaluating how the city and other municipal bodies, such as the Ottawa Police Services Board, responded to the protests that paralyzed the national capital’s downtown for weeks last winter.
Gougeon is recommending that the city and its police force formalize their communications and responsibilities to better prepare for major events and protests in the future.
The “Freedom Convoy” protesters arrived in Ottawa at the end of January 2022 and were cleared out in mid-February after the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.
While protesters had a variety of goals and many expressed grievances about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, they were largely united in rejecting COVID-19 public-health restrictions.
The auditor general found that Ottawa police reached out to some city services ahead of the protest, but not the city’s office of emergency management. That office initiated contact with the police on Jan. 24, five days before the majority of protesters arrived.
“Due to a lack of timely notification, the city was unable to commence co-ordinated planning activities until mere days before the arrival of the protestors,” says one of Gougeon’s reports.
Intelligence shared with the city was also “not sufficient” to allow for effective planning, Gougeon concluded. “In the days leading up to the convoy’s arrival, city departments received very little information from the (police).”
Reports describe how police prepared a 46-page traffic plan based on available intelligence in advance of the protest’s arrival – but only a “brief single-page plan showing police unit posts” was shared with city officials.
The failure to provide a traffic plan or work with city transit experts resulted in an inability to properly plan and alter bus routes, reports say.
City staff found themselves “reacting” to police demands, such as a request for assistance moving barriers, but were not privy to any of the communications or decision-making behind the requests.
Traffic managers “found the situation chaotic,” the auditor general found.
“It was not until February 21, 2022, two days prior to the end of the protest, when the city’s traffic management unit’s expertise was utilized by the (police), and the city obtained knowledge of the detailed traffic plan from there onwards,” one of the reports says.
The reports also detail the Ottawa Police Services Board’s similar frustrations over how police were sharing information related to the “Freedom Convoy.”
Gougeon’s office found that despite attempts to obtain necessary operational details about what police were doing, the civilian oversight body did not receive information consistently.
“It impacted their ability to effectively undertake their oversight responsibilities during the convoy protest,” says a report about the board’s experience.
The police services board only received information about the protest from police on Jan. 24 – the same day that the city’s emergency management office reached out to the force, it said. “This was after a regularly scheduled board meeting, where there was no mention of the upcoming convoy protest.”
And the board did not receive detailed information on police priorities, “nor did a fulsome consultation take place” – so it was unable to fulfil its policy “to consult on the mission, objectives and priorities of the event,” the report says.
Gougeon concluded that the city readily supported the Ottawa Police Service throughout the “Freedom Convoy.”
But the report identified numerous challenges and shortcomings from the city when it came to helping residents, communicating with councillors and departments and managing traffic.
More than 1,600 Ottawa residents and business owners participated in a consultation and shared their experiences. Many expressed feeling abandoned and ignored by the city, the audit found.
Several residents in the “red zone,” the area that was most affected by the demonstrations, had difficulty accessing resources such as grocery stores, medication and transportation. While the city posted links to resources, community groups were the ones to take matters into their hands to help residents, a report about the city’s response says.
“Residents found these community initiatives to be most helpful to them during the emergency. It appeared to them that none of these initiatives were city-led,” says the report.
The audit found that the city received numerous bylaw reports, but many were not addressed due to staff safety concerns. According to the auditor general, 229 respondents noted that they received no response or action to reports they filed.
“Residents felt ignored and abandoned by the city as a result of the lack of enforcement and communication,” Gougeon determined.
The auditor general made 35 recommendations about how the city and police should respond to future emergencies, including improving communication to city councillors and investing in a system that would allow residents to make bylaw reports with greater ease.
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