Ottawa’s police chief says the force is launching a “surge and contain” strategy in a bid to end the trucker convoy camped out in the nation’s capital for more than a week.
Chief Peter Sloly said during a Friday morning press conference that the convoy is “very dangerous” and “very volatile,” as he announced the new bid by police to limit access to the core by additional vehicles, and ultimately end the demonstration.
“Ottawa residents are frustrated and angry, and they have every right to be,” Sloly said.
“The lawlessness must end.”
Sloly said the “surge and contain” strategy is based on “lessons learned” over the past week as well as new intelligence gathered over the last 24 hours.
It will see approximately 150 officers patrolling Centretown, Lowertown and the ByWard Market with a focus on addressing “unlawful, threatening conduct:” specifically, mischief, hate, harassment, intimidation and other similar behaviours, Sloly said.
The second part of the “surge and contain” strategy will see police hardening and expanding what Sloly called the “red zone” of the demonstrations on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill, which holds estimates of 50-60 trucks, according to police.
“The Ottawa Police Service, the City of Ottawa and our partners will be utilizing concrete barriers, heavy equipment barricades to create no-access roadways throughout the downtown core,” he said.
“This includes considerations around the closing of bridges, highway off-ramps and other roadways.”
Sloly said police will be directing incoming vehicles to designated parking zones outside of the downtown core on Friday and over the weekend, when between 300 and 400 additional trucks are expected to try to enter the city along with another 1000 to 2000 people on foot.
He said the focus is on “isolating and containing” the demonstration in the Wellington Street red zone.
“There will be more closures. It will create more problems,” he said, citing issues for residents and hospital staff who may face problems in getting to work or crossing interprovincial bridges.
“There will be a price to pay for higher security footprint.”
The third part of the new police strategy focuses on intelligence gathering, he added.
Sloly said the Ottawa police have “fully secured” intelligence support from national and provincial partners, warning that this means police will now be better able to “identify and target protesters and supporters of protesters who are funding and enabling unlawful and harmful activity by the protesters themselves.”
“Investigative evidence-gathering teams are collecting financial, digital, vehicle registration, driver identification, insurance status and other related evidence that will be used in prosecutions,” he said.
Ottawa police have been facing mounting anger from local city councillors and residents over their handling of the demonstration over the past week, which police services board chair Diane Deans described as a “living hell” for residents this week.
City councillors have described the demonstration as an “occupation” and a “siege,” while convoy organizers said in the press release that they are “occupying” the city.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford also called the demonstration an “occupation” in a statement Friday calling for the protest to end — even as a convoy plans to descend on Queen’s Park in Toronto this weekend.
“The Toronto and Ottawa Police Services have my unequivocal support as they work to keep the public safe. Harassment or acts of hatred or intolerance of any kind will not be tolerated. I reiterated to both Mayor (John) Tory and Mayor (Jim) Watson that the province stands ready to provide any additional resources they might require,” Ford said.
Read more: Toronto police close some downtown roads as officials prepare for anticipated ‘convoy’ protest
Sloly has repeatedly said the risk to officers was high and that engaging them or attempting to ticket demonstrators could result in danger to his officers.
But there have been numerous reports shared online by residents detailing instances where they say people associated with the convoy tried to break into their homes, attacked them on the streets, and threatened them with rape or death for wearing masks.
Twitter has been one of the forums where residents have been sharing the experiences they say occurred at the hands of individuals associated with the convoy, along with Reddit and an Instagram account called Ottawa Convoy Report.
Sloly said on Friday that police will investigate all reports filed to them.
“There is no statute of limitations on criminal investigations until we bring those who committed those criminal acts to justice,” he said.
Deputy police Chief Steve Bell urged residents to file reports.
“On the ground, investigative teams will continue to collect and pursue all available evidence of any illegal activity. This includes the collection of license plate numbers, first hand accounts and witness accounts, social media information and physical evidence of any wrongdoing in the city,” Bell said.
“There is currently an underreporting of some crimes of the unlawful demonstrators to our residents. We implore you to please respond and report any unlawful behavior that you are witnessing or a victim of.”
Ottawa Police Services declined to provide any information when asked how many death threats, rape threats and assaults alleged to be at the hands of convoy members they have received.
Sloly on Friday said while the police have so far had operational success in ensuring a lack of deaths, riots or physical violence, he takes “no solace” in that as the demonstration continues.
“Our goal is to end the demonstration,” he said.
“The demonstrators in the red zone area remain highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely,” Sloly continued. “This remains, as it was from the beginning, an increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration.”
Ottawa police have “made arrests involving individuals who were intending to and were bringing firearms to the nation’s capital to be involved directly or indirectly in the protests,” Sloly added.
But the Ottawa Police Service would not provide details when asked for the names and dates on which those arrests were made.
What will the weekend bring?
With potentially thousands poised to arrive once again in the city this weekend, the question police are now facing as they ramp up their security posture is about what happens next.
Sloly and Bell have put repeated emphasis on the risks of any potential crackdown, as well as the potential impact of planned large-scale counter-protests.
Police have said they expect in the ballpark of 1,000 counter-protestors, something that one expert says has the potential to spark violence as tensions rise if the groups come into contact with each other.
“One of the lessons from Charlottesville was that there was just a real failure of the police there to keep the two groups apart and to establish any physical separation from the two groups,” said Regina Bateson, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa studying violent collective action.
She had studied the organizing and activities involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The letter left one counter-protestor, Heather Hyer, dead after James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into counter-protestors in the vicinity of the rally. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2018.
Bateson said she thinks the new approach outlined by police on Friday is “wise,” and that she hopes they are weighing the risks to counter-protestors from those involved in the convoy.”
“I hope that they’re aware of the risks involved in having counter-protesters and the original group of demonstrators on the ground at same time in close proximity.”
Predicting what could happen next is challenging, she added, noting that there has been growing evidence to suggest that extremists in the U.S. are showing a willingness to “behave in ways that are different and unexpected.“
That can make it difficult for law enforcement to gauge the impacts of their actions, or envision scenarios that were previously unthinkable, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, she said.
“This is a moment that demands a lot of imagination on the part of law enforcement and government officials,” Bateson added. “Just because something seems fantastical, just because something has not happened here before does not mean it’s impossible.”
— with files from Global News’s Craig Lord