Peel officer suspended after hugging COVID-19 protesters, accusing journalist of agitating attendees

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Peel Regional Police officer gives hugs and handshakes, but Mississauga gym still open'
COVID-19: Peel Regional Police officer gives hugs and handshakes, but Mississauga gym still open
WATCH ABOVE: In a Global News exclusive, a Peel Regional Police sergeant was filmed getting up and personal with supporters of a Mississauga gym that's been ordered to close. As of Friday evening, it still was open. There were no masks and plenty of hugs as the officer watched Sean O'Shea get approached by an anti-mask supporter – Apr 16, 2021

The Peel Regional Police service has suspended an officer who accused a Global News journalist of “agitating” protesters by filming those in attendance who are pushing for a Mississauga gym to reopen as well as hugging and posing for photos.

According to a statement issued by the service Friday afternoon, Chief Nishan Duraiappah became aware of the incident after it was posted on social media.

“Upon learning of the incident, I immediately directed that the sergeant be suspended and commenced an internal affairs investigation,” he said in the statement.

“Peel Regional Police are committed to ensuring the safety of our members and the public. Our officers will enforce municipal and provincial regulations as required.”

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The statement went on to highlight that gathering and protests need to adhere to provincial and municipal COVID-19 restrictions and laws. It said the service continues to follow public health advice “while using the appropriate safety precautions, including all available personal protective equipment.”

Sean O’Shea, a consumer and investigative reporter with Global Toronto, was at Huf Gym near Cawthra Road and Dundas Street East on Friday to report on continuing protests by the facility’s owners, employees, customers and supporters over the Ontario government’s current COVID-19 restrictions that have temporarily ordered gyms closed.

Earlier in the week, O’Shea reported on how Huf Gym reopened for patrons despite the province seeing record-high cases.

Outside the facility Friday morning, O’Shea was by himself filming several protesters standing in front of the gym on his cellphone. In a video posted on Twitter, a woman wearing a sweater with the words “hugs over masks” could be seen aggressively walking toward O’Shea, loudly shouting and waving her finger.

“Get away from me… get away from me… get away from me,” O’Shea could be heard saying.

As the woman turned around to walk away, O’Shea walked forward and began speaking with a Peel police officer, identified by multiple people as Sgt. Paul Brown, at the scene.

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“Is this OK with you sergeant? Do you condone that sergeant?” he asked the officer.

“I don’t condone it that’s why I started to come over. Um, you’re standing here videotaping and obviously you’re agitating this group,” the officer replied.

“I’m not agitating. I’m standing back here,” O’Shea told the officer.

“I know, but they obviously have a problem with you. I don’t know if you have a problem with them,” the officer said.

“I’m a journalist, I’m doing my job, sergeant,” O’Shea said.

O’Shea went on to capture the same officer, who wasn’t wearing a mask, hugging and standing with some of those in attendance who also weren’t wearing masks. The officer posed for photos.

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“Jeez, just terrible, eh, Sean? What are we going to do with guys like this who want people to be able to feed their kids for the next 20 years right?” a protester said as the officer hugged someone at the scene.

As O’Shea was filming, some of those in attendance held up signs saying “We are all essential” in an apparent effort to block his view.

“That’s evil what you’re trying to do,” someone said.

“You’re going out of your way to try and destroy someone. That’s communism and fascism,” another person could be heard saying as the officer continued to hug others and appeared to pose for photos.

Meanwhile, Global News viewed video that was shared on a Facebook wall Friday afternoon that appears to have been filmed by one of the gym’s supporters. It appears to have captured a conversation with the sergeant.

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The video opens with a shot inside the gym before supporters say they’re going out to talk with the officer. After they go outside, the sergeant can be heard praising small business owners before saying he doesn’t like being on camera. The person filming the conversation then turns the camera around.

“If bylaw comes, this is what I’ll do with bylaw, if bylaw comes what I’ve been telling them anytime they ask us to assist them with enforcement is simply, ‘If you go in there, I can’t ensure your safety,” the officer can be heard saying before the camera briefly freezes.

“And that usually gets them to think, ‘Well maybe I shouldn’t go in there.'”

He can later be heard saying if charges are laid, the matter should be taken to court “because you’re never going to get convicted.”

“This is not for police and bylaw to be working it out right here on the street,” the officer was heard saying.

Someone later asked if the sergeant could speak with the chief of the Toronto Police Service about the restrictions.

“I would love to,” he could be heard saying.

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The person who filmed the video went on to say he and others need to protect the officer, adding they didn’t want Global News at the scene. The sergeant could be heard saying he “appreciate(s) it.”

“I’m just glad that we do have a few good cops who understand,” the person filming could be heard saying.

“You get the wrong cop and I have to apologize in advance because if you get the wrong cop at the wrong time,” the officer could be heard replying while also referring to 25 years of experience.

Global News contacted the Peel Regional Police Association, the union that represents sworn officers, multiple times, but a spokesperson wasn’t available for comment Friday afternoon.

During a live report from the scene, O’Shea said he received a written apology from a senior official with the service.

“I watched the video and what you faced was wrong and the officer should have done better,” Insp. Raj Biring wrote.

“These are not the values or beliefs of the Peel Regional Police. We are in this together and need to adhere to provincial guidelines, which officers are well aware of.”

Friday’s developments came three days after Teresa Heron, an owner of the gym, announced she would start seeing clients. On Wednesday, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie was asked about the decision for the gym to reopen.

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“We don’t have a lot of tolerance for this. We’re going to give them the maximum fine,” she said during a news conference.

Global News previously observed several City of Mississauga enforcement officers at the facility as the gym’s clients came and went through the gym’s front and rear doors unimpeded.

Heron previously told Global News she would not grant voluntary access to the gym and that a warrant would be necessary. On Thursday, Peel Regional Police officers arrived at the plaza and a spokesperson told Global News they would not be entering the facility under a warrant.

Chris Giles, the manager of compliance and licensing for the City of Mississauga, told Global News charges were expected to be laid under the Reopening Ontario Act.

Heron was asked if she intended to stay open despite Crombie’s warning.

“I am,” she said in response while rejecting Crombie’s comments.

“Then they need to do that … we continue to operate.”

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Global News contacted Crombie’s office to ask for comment on Friday’s incident. A spokesperson for Crombie said she was aware of Friday’s protest.

“The mayor has spoken directly with Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah about the situation and has been assured that Peel Regional Police leadership is dealing with the situation swiftly and appropriately,” Daniel Bitonti said, adding since Crombie is on the Peel Police Services Board she can’t comment further.

Jay Heron, who is a co-owner of the gym, said the facilities need to remain open for residents during the pandemic.

“These gyms are about being healthy. Going to doctors and dying in hospitals, that’s not healthy. Not pharmaceutical stuff, that’s not healthy,” he told Global News.

Darren John, who told Global News he’s been an 18-year employee of the gym, said he disagreed with requiring fitness facilities to be closed now.

“I don’t think it should be shut down while they’re leaving alcohol stores open, ice cream shops open, weed shops open,” he said.

For months gyms and fitness facilities have been heavily impacted by restrictions that have seen closures ordered or have had heavy restrictions imposed.

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Experts have said gyms that operate exclusively indoor settings, which typically have poorer ventilation, also means patrons aren’t usually masked when engaging in strenuous exercise.

Cited as an increased transmission risk, high-impact activity also leads to heavier breathing, which means droplets are being expelled from peoples’ mouths at an accelerated rate — and being propelled further distances.

Journalists facing ‘really, really difficult’ circumstances covering COVID-19 protests: CAJ

When asked about Friday’s incident, Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, called the actions taken by Peel Regional Police command officers Friday afternoon “reassuring in a lot of ways.”

“Sean has every right to be there. It’s a public place. He’s there trying to document,” he said.

“He is completely within his rights to be there and document and take notes, take video, tweet about it, exactly what he did. Sean was a pro under the circumstances.

“Journalism isn’t a crime. Journalists are allowed to be there to tell the stories and they’re the ones who are holding people accountable. Thank God Sean was there because clearly this got action right away.”

READ MORE: Journalists association condemns harassment at Quebec mask protests

Jolly said the nature of what happened on Friday is something he’s been hearing about every couple of weeks. He said journalists have been “dismissed and denigrated” simply for being at the scene of a protest.

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“It’s been really, really difficult,” he told Global News, adding he’s especially concerned for journalists in the earlier stage of their careers.

“How does that impact younger reporters who are just city reporters? Are they going to be able to handle that? Is that something they’re prepared for?”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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