Law enforcement disagreed during the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests about the value of negotiation versus police action, according to an Ottawa Police Service official.
Police Liaison Teams (PLT) were deployed to speak with demonstrators as trucks snarled the streets of downtown Ottawa for weeks in early February — but while some officers wanted to give these teams more time to negotiate, others wanted to take firm action to clear the protesters out.
“I felt that taking a longer term approach and potentially getting a bigger win at the end was the way to go,” said Acting Deputy Ottawa Police Chief Patricia Ferguson, who was testifying before the inquiry investigating the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act on Thursday.
PLT officers from both the Ottawa police and the Ontario Provincial Police had been deployed to start building lines of communications with protesters, Ferguson said.
However, they struggled to get “quick wins” on small issues — like the protesters’ request for porta potties, for example — that Ferguson said could have helped build a relationship between law enforcement and the encampments.
“They had established fairly reasonable relationships and open lines of communication. And there was some back and forth leading up to this event and they were not empowered to to make decisions, to be able to get those quick wins,” she said.
“The direction from the event commander was ‘we’re not giving them one inch.'”
In the midst of these negotiations, on Feb. 6, the Ottawa police sent a public order team into a convoy encampment on Coventry Road and seized a stockpile of fuel. According to Ferguson, the PLT officers received no warning about the action — and they were incensed.
“It really damaged the relationship with our PLT team, with the OPP PLT team and with the event commander,” Ferguson said.
“That was a fractured situation after that.”
The negotiations faced a serious setback as a result of the action, the acting deputy chief explained.
“Any ground that they had gained, any relationship that they had made at that point in time had been damaged significantly and it would take them days or weeks to reestablish,” Ferguson said.
The Ottawa police was being told at that time that “generally, 80 per cent of people are law abiding and they want to follow laws,” Ferguson said.
“If you give them the opportunity to have a a win, they will often go on their own — and so those were some of the things that I felt we needed to give that a really good try,” she said.
“I don’t believe (then-Ottawa Police Chief Peter) Sloly, at this stage in it, was feeling the same way about it.”
In Ferguson’s notes from the time of the Coventry road incident, presented as evidence at the inquiry, she described a concern that the force will “lose OPP PLT if we do actions.”
Later, she wrote “PLT is pissed. OPP has left” as a result of the police enforcement action at the Coventry Road encampment.
During her testimony, Ferguson made it clear that she felt police enforcement action would result in “quick wins” but that the negotiations would be a “longer term approach” aimed at resolving the situation.
Meanwhile, her notes claimed Sloly had said “anyone who undermines the operational plan — he will crush them.”
“I wrote in my in brackets that he said it twice,” she said.
Ottawa police in 'dysfunction' from outset: witness
An Ontario police superintendent said there was “dysfunction” in the Ottawa police service from the outset of the “Freedom Convoy” protest, with some local officers yelling profanities at meetings and leadership seemingly lacking a plan.
Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Craig Abrams shared his perspective on the protest Thursday evening as part of the public inquiry into the federal invocation of the Emergencies Act.
He said after a meeting with various police agencies on Jan. 29, an OPP inspector told him that Ottawa police officers were yelling profanities at her and other OPP officers.
That was the first weekend of the protest, which would go on to last more than three weeks.
Abrams said the Ottawa police appeared to have lost control, even at that early stage.
Ottawa residents testify
As the police squabbled over how best to handle the situation, residents in Ottawa were dealing with deafening honking of horns, defecation and urine in the street, and harassment when they’d leave their homes, according to locals who testified before the inquiry on Friday.
Victoria De La Ronde, a resident of the Centretown neighbourhood — one of the most densely occupied areas of the protest — said the impact on her physical well-being caused by the protest was “quite extensive.”
“I certainly, during the experience, had difficulty sleeping. I had an effect on my lungs and my throat because of the fumes and other smells. And I also have long-term effects,” she said.
“The long-term effects are loss of hearing, loss of balance, some vertigo. (I’m) triggered by the sound of any horn now.”
De La Ronde, who has difficulty with her eyesight, said she often relies on sound to get around. This left her stranded amid the blaring horns, and compounded the impact of her long-term hearing loss. The experience, she said, was one of extreme helplessness.
“The horn-blowing was so loud and continuous, there was absolutely no place for me to go in my own unit. There was no place that had any less sound,” she said.
“I checked different rooms to see, well, maybe I can sleep on the floor here. There was no place at that had a diminished sound.”
She said she felt “trapped” in her own home, particularly as fireworks pinged off the windows in the middle of the night.
“During the fireworks, when the debris from the fireworks sprayed against my windows, I was just terrified that they would break any minute,” she said, adding the consequences of broken windows during the bitterly cold Ottawa winter would have been difficult.
Here's what police called their 'Achilles heel' amid convoy
Staffing issues proved to be the biggest challenge for the Ottawa Police Service during the protests, Ferguson testified on Thursday.
“Staffing was I would say, our number one Achilles heel in all of this,” she said.
“Our frontline members were working 12 hour shifts when the convoy came, and we were trying to manage staffing and clear posts. Some of them were working up to 15 hours…they were they were exhausted.”
Her comments support claims from other witnesses that police resources proved to be an issue throughout the convoy protests. The inquiry heard that Sloly had made repeated requests for more police officers to bolster his ranks.
The shortage of police officers also caused issues as the Police Services Board tried to schedule meetings with law enforcement to better understand the situation — and the plan to address it.
“I was being advised by some people that I needed to limit the number of meetings that we were calling because police resources were stretched thin,” City Councillor and former chair of the board Diane Deans said on Wednesday.
“This was the real point of tension in the whole thing, that we needed to have a solid plan that needed to be properly resourced and there was this continuing tension that we weren’t getting the resources that we needed,” she said.
-With files from The Canadian Press