Winnipeg police chief facing more questions about handling of trucker protest

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Winnipeg police chief facing more questions about handling of trucker protest
Winnipeg's police chief says he's pleased with how officers handled the truck convoy protest outside the Manitoba Legislative Building but many, including politicians, saying they should have done more. Global's Brittany Greenslade reports – Mar 2, 2022

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth is again facing questions about how police dealt with a recent trucker protest at the Manitoba Legislature.

The protest, which began Feb. 4, set up outside the legislative building in support of a larger anti-vaccine mandate demonstration happening in Ottawa.

Police have maintained their strategy of negotiating with protest organizers was the correct one, despite coming under heavy criticism from the public and city leaders — including mayor Brian Bowman — who felt the weeks-long demonstration should have been ended much more quickly.

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On Tuesday night, police took the unusual tactic of releasing a statement by superintendent Dave Dalal on the Substack newsletter platform, attempting to further explain the rationale for the way the protest was handled.

People rally against provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

In an interview on 680 CJOB’s The Start Wednesday morning, the chief of police said officers did not want to move in right away in case the demonstration became violent.

“We learn something from every protest we deal with — they’re all unique,” Smyth said.

“I think what people misunderstand when we go in to enforce, once you go, you’re going all the way — so it would quickly escalate into a use of force situation. It wouldn’t warrant what we were dealing with at the time to go in heavy-handed right at the front end.”

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Despite complaints from the public, a unanimous motion by city council, and a letter from area representatives at all three levels of government about noise and traffic disruptions, Smyth maintained that police tactics were in line with national policing standards.

In normal circumstances, he acknowledged, trucks honking for no purpose would be committing an offence under the Highway Traffic Act.

“(It’s) a nuanced situation here where we were dealing with a protest with, at times, upwards of 1,000 people,” Smyth said.

“We were able to work with organizers to mitigate that to some degree, and we saw some success with that and we saw them change their tactics as the protest went on.

“The first couple of days were truly terrible, terrible for the community and anyone who had to live or work (there).”

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Smyth also dismissed concerns that police may have been lenient on protesters because of potential sympathy to their cause among the ranks, calling it “a misrepresentation of what was occurring.”

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The Winnipeg police board meets Friday, where a report on protests will be presented.
According to a report being discussed at Friday’s police board meeting, in 2021, police worked 46 protests and rallies related to COVID-19 health measures — costing the city $160,000.

Smyth said the lengthy convoy protest cost more than $100,000 in policing overtime.

Click to play video: 'Protesters clear out vehicles as police deadline passes'
Protesters clear out vehicles as police deadline passes

Criminologist Michael Kempa told Global News the police reaction was understandable, but not the right thing that should have been done.

“It was almost certainly the wrong way to have approached it,” said Kempa, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“There should have been much more done at the beginning, but that being said, I certainly understand why the police took the approach they did.

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“They greatly underestimated the threat that the convoy protests posed to the cities across Canada, largely for the reason that it’s not something that police services have ever seen before in Canada.”

Kempa said that while most police officers don’t support far-right political movements and want to treat protests fairly, this type of populist protest is often underestimated by police, so demonstrators can appear to be receiving different treatment than those protesting for other causes.

“We only need to look at the history of protesting the racialized movements or Indigenous protests across Canada to have seen a very different and far more violent response,” he said.

“I would point out there is a long, long history of police organizations treating protest or underestimating the threat posed by either white nationalist groups, far-right political movements, domestic terrorists in that sense.

“So it’s not too surprising that we would see this. It doesn’t excuse it. It indicates we have a long-running problem that we have to rectify.”

With files from Brittany Greenslade

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg police give protesters eviction notice after nearly three-week demonstration'
Winnipeg police give protesters eviction notice after nearly three-week demonstration

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