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Messages written on plywood covering broken windows of the Hudson's Bay Company after last week's riot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, June 19, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Messages written on plywood covering broken windows of the Hudson's Bay Company after last week's riot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, June 19, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

One year later, the riot suspects look different as the details become clear Add to ...

As dawn broke the morning after the mayhem, a portrait emerged of the suspects: hooligans, anarchists, criminals, thugs – balaclava-clad rioters whose fit of destruction no planning could have prevented.

But as weeks turned into months and no less than four reviews were conducted, details of circumstances surrounding the Stanley Cup riot that happened one year ago today are clearer: With a shortage of officers, faulty police radios, overwhelmed security and unbridled alcohol consumption among a crowd of 155,000, the blame could no longer be placed on the “others.” It is an uncomfortable realization of a night the city would rather forget.

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Take the claim by both the city and police that the riot was initiated by “anarchists”– professional trouble makers who incited others into willfully destroying storefronts and vehicles. In the aftermath of the mayhem, Mayor Gregor Robertson called them “purposeful vandals,” noting they were also responsible for violent protests during the 2010 Winter Olympics and Toronto G20 summit. One year later, however, the mayor’s finger-pointing is less direct.

“Well, not necessarily ‘anarchists,’ ” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week. “I think there was some discrepancy about the politics of that. There certainly were hooligans with equipment to start a riot and they did so at two separate locations downtown.”

Vancouver police stand by their claim but don’t have the records to prove it.

“I can tell you, unequivocally, during the seven games [of the Stanley Cup finals], that I’ve seen some that were there that were in other demonstrations,” said Sergeant Howard Chow, spokesman for the Integrated Riot Investigation Team. “But if you’re wanting an accounting of how many, I don’t know. … We just don’t collect stats on anarchists.”

Statistics based on 225 suspected rioters to date paint the typical offender as a 21-year-old male from the suburbs. Among those publicly identified are a University of B.C. biology student from Richmond, a promising young water-polo player from Maple Ridge and a young man brought up in a broken home in Coquitlam.

And then there is the early projection from last fall that the total number of people charged would be between 500 and 700 – a range that dropped to “more than 300” this week. While police say the final figure will depend heavily on how many tips they continue to receive, it is still believed to be the greatest number of people charged in one incident in Canadian history. However, the flow of information is slowing and most investigative work has been completed, as reflected by the downsizing of IRIT next month from 70 members to 27. At the one-year mark, the team has recommended 674 charges against 225 people, with the Crown approving 301 against 114.

On the provincial level, Premier Christy Clark came out with guns blazing in the weeks after the riot, vowing swift justice against rioters even as Police Chief Jim Chu maintained meaningful charges would take time. In October, she championed televising the trials – an order that was roundly slammed as a populist gimmick before dying a quiet death.

Ms. Clark maintained her stand at a news conference on an unrelated matter earlier this week.

“I believe in open justice and I think this idea we can have cameras in the courtroom of British Columbia is still something that could still happen – if not for this set of trials, then for the future,” she said. “I think that’s something British Columbia is certainly ready for.”

But despite imperfect predictions and hasty proclamations, a collective overzealousness for justice amid frustration, Vancouver has undoubtedly learned. Massive downtown gatherings are not out of the picture, for instance, but they will be approached with an abundance of caution.

The “City Large Event Oversight Committee” – created immediately after the riot and comprised of the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Police Department and TransLink, among others – will assess the risk of holding the event and co-ordinate with external partners.

Mr. Robertson said it was necessary to take a step back and explore neighbourhood-based celebrations as an alternate form of gatherings this year, but he has not ruled out another downtown live site with large screens and street closings.

“In future, it’s looking at how celebrations are scaling up, whether a neighbourhood-based approach is working successfully and people are not concentrating as much downtown,” he said. “There would be a fluid approach that responds to the crowds assembling.”

Transit Police has already stepped up its liquor interdiction, deploying more officers to SkyTrain stations during large regional events such as the annual Celebration of Light fireworks. While it is not illegal to carry unopened liquor on public transit, those who police suspect might be consuming it in public may now have it seized.

“I can’t give you all the ingredients of the questions we would ask – we wouldn’t arbitrarily seize it – but there is a series of questions we would go through to determine where you were heading and what your purpose was,” said Inspector Rick McKillican, operations chief for Transit Police.

In the downtown core, a recently created group e-mail list now makes it possible for Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, to communicate with all of his members quickly, in the event of an emergency.

“It sounds pretty straightforward, but we didn’t have it [last year],” he said, recalling an antiquated database on his work computer. When police asked him at the start of the riot to relay information to his members, he simply couldn’t.

For now, the healing continues. At noon Friday, community leaders, business owners, artists and more will host a community celebration at Christ Cathedral Church in downtown Vancouver to mark the riot’s one-year anniversary. On display will be the large plywood boards that this time last year covered the shattered windows of a downtown department store, boards covered in colourful, heartfelt messages – more comfortable memories of a night the city would rather forget.

Follow on Twitter: @andreawoo

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