The Ottawa Police Service incident commander in charge of the “Freedom Convoy” response told the court hearing a trial of two of its organizers that work to shrink the footprint was undermined after the first weekend by an order to not to give an inch of downtown.
Insp. Russell Lucas told the court that police plans had to change on the fly after the bulk of the vehicles arrived on January 29, and he realized the OPS underestimated the scope of the convoy.
“We weren’t going to stop it, so how do we minimize the impact to the city as a whole?” Lucas told the court, speaking as a witness.
Lucas is the second witness in the trial of convoy organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber. The pair are charged with mischief, counselling to commit mischief, intimidation and obstructing police for their alleged roles in the demonstration.
On the first weekend of the demonstration, Lucas told the court an estimated 5,000 vehicles made their way into Ottawa. Many, including hundreds of semi-trucks, parked in downtown Ottawa and throughout the parliamentary precinct.
Lucas told the court the OPS did not have a full scope of the size of the protest until January 28, when much of the convoy arrived in the capital.
Justice Heather Perkins-McVay asked Lucas when he realized that the initial plans put in place by the OPS would need to change.
“On the Friday when they were coming in,” Lucas told the justice.
In response, Crown prosecutor Siobhan Westcher asked Lucas what kind of impact this had on OPS members and resources.
“They were stretched thin. Just had to delegate to members and the team leads to make independent decisions on how best to ensure public safety,” Lucas responded.
He said their intelligence pointed to an estimate of 100 vehicles per province. The inspector attributed the change to a large contingent from the Ottawa area that joined at the last minute.
After the first weekend, he said some vehicles on the periphery left, but the core group remained. Working with the Police Liaison Team (PLT), Lucas said there were plans to try and move some vehicles from congested intersections like Rideau and Sussex to gaps on Wellington Street.
“Once I put the proposal through the chain of command, we were given the direction to give them “not one inch,” so that undermined the work of the PLT,” Lucas said.
Lucas clarified for the court that he understood that order came from Peter Sloly, who was chief at the time.
Sloly resigned as chief of the OPS on February 15, one day after the Emergencies Act was invoked. Three days later, a joint police operation led by OPS began work to clear the downtown core of trucks and protestors.
The OPS began preparing for the arrival of the convoy protest on January 1, according to Lucas. He said they were monitoring social media and liaising with multiple police agencies as convoys began to travel to Ottawa from as far away as Vancouver.
Lucas told the court that there were no flags on the behaviour of those in the convoys. He referenced positive interactions with police on the route to Ottawa, including obliging with a request to divert the convoy due to a police operation on the route.
In prior protests involving trucks, Lucas said the OPS experience usually saw vehicles block Wellington Street and then leave later that day or the next.
The OPS anticipated the bulk of the convoy would leave on first Monday as that’s when planned programming ended and key figures didn’t have hotels booked past that day, according to Lucas.
He added, they prepared for a small group to potentially stay due to claims protestors would stay until all COVID-19 mandates and restrictions were lifted.
Once it became clear this would not be the case and plans with the PLT were halted, Lucas said he had to put officers into sustainability mode, with a focus on maintaining public safety, and give police units delegated authority to issue commands as they saw fit.
“I wasn’t going to burn out all the officers because they were working 12-18 hours a day. We needed to build a stability plan,” Lucas said.
The inspector also described an instance of officers being swarmed when they tried to rein in the crowd. He pointed to an incident of protestors shooting off fireworks on Wellington Street. Lucas said the public order unit had to be sent to ensure officer safety.
Much of Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon’s questioning of Lucas centred around attempted negotiations between Lich and Barber’s group in the convoy, police and city officials on potentially moving trucks.
In these negotiations and talks, Lich and Barber’s group would be represented by Tom Marazzo on emergency routes and lawyers Keith Wilson and Eva Chipiuk.
Lucas told the court that he was not directly involved in any of these meetings as his job was to be focused on responding to live developments taking place in the protest.
However, he said he was aware of some of the talks, including a much-discussed deal between the convoy organizers, the city and police to try and relocate around 40 trucks to Wellington Street.
While he didn’t know specifics of the apparent deal, he said police stopped the movement of trucks on Feb. 14 when there were no concessions related to keeping certain intersections clear.
Greenspon said this will be covered in more detail later in the trial when City of Ottawa emergency and protective services general manager Kim Ayotte testifies. Ayotte was questioned on this deal during the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) last fall.
When asked by Greenspon what this move meant, Lucas said it would have been similar to the movement he wanted to see at the end of the first weekend.
Lucas said his understanding was the protestors would be deciding which trucks would be moved.
Greenspon then asked Lucas about his POEC testimony, where he was asked about the Quebec group Farfadaas, who were set up at the intersection of Rideau and Sussex.
In his testimony, Lucas confirmed his description that Farfadaas were “free-men of the land anarchists” who were hard to negotiate with.
Throughout POEC, police witnesses characterized the protestors at Rideau and Sussex as more volatile and aggressive than other convoy participants in other areas.
Farfadaas leader Steeve Charland was also arrested and charged with mischief and counsel to commit mischief.
To conclude his cross-examination, Greenspon referenced Lucas’ response to assertions police backed the protest. Lucas said they couldn’t show support one way or another, but they have the right to protest.
Greenspon asked Lucas if he agreed with the protest, and he replied he did not but they had the right to protest.
Barber’s lawyer, Diane Magas, focused her initial questions on the various groups taking part in the convoy.
Lucas replied that the once the crowd began to settle in place, the PLT began to try and make inroads with various groups and try to identify and form relationships with leadership figures.
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