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Police try to move rioters in the streets of Vancouver on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Police try to move rioters in the streets of Vancouver on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Gary Mason

Vancouver police deployment wasn't adequate to act as riot deterrent Add to ...

It was shortly after 8 p.m., as the police struggled to contain a large and angry crowd at what was considered the epicentre of the Stanley Cup riot – the corner of Georgia and Homer – that the officers’ dilemma became apparent.

Everywhere they looked – east, west, north, south – there was a braying mob challenging police forces. The front-line rioters – those smashing windows and overturning vehicles – had spread in all directions. And with each car set on fire and each brick thrown at a cop, those egging on the thugs and anarchists grew more vocal and unruly.

Standing behind police lines, it became quickly apparent that the officers were no match for the fantastic numbers of alcohol-crazed lunatics fuelling the mob mentality.

As the city of Vancouver began putting itself back together Thursday – both physically and emotionally – there were many questions to be answered about the calamitous events that followed the Vancouver Canucks’ Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins.

As someone who was at ground zero of the riot for some time, and then followed the movements of rioters down side streets and alleyways, it was difficult to believe that any worst-case-scenario plan involving a crowd of more than 100,000 people would call for only an initial police presence of a reported 400 or 500 officers. (The VPD would only say it had “hundreds” of officers on the ground.)

It simply wasn’t enough to provide the kind of presence that might act as a deterrent, that might intimidate and scare away would-be rioters and looters. And then after the mayhem began, it wasn’t enough to catch all those who were smashing windows and looting stores, who were throwing bricks and climbing up light standards to incite the crowd even more.

But here’s the other truth: The Vancouver Police Department could have had 1,000 officers downtown and it wouldn’t have been enough to handle a crowd of that size that suddenly went sideways.

Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu will take some heat for his crowd-control plan, and he’s up to the criticism. He’s been mostly universally praised for the job he’s done as police chief to this point, so a few pointed questions about his strategy are valid.

But let’s not lose sight of one thing: The first people we should be casting blame on are the idiots, the thousands of them, who are ultimately responsible for this disaster – not the police. And the Crown needs to prosecute as many of these people as they can, as harshly as is possible.

I asked Chief Chu whether he thought it was a good idea in the future to allow 100,000 people to gather downtown for hours, while consuming massive quantities of alcohol. He was non-committal. Well, I think he was being politic. It’s a stupid idea. And it shouldn’t happen again unless there are extraordinary precautions taken that would make the likelihood of this happening again impossible.

And right now I can’t imagine what they might be.

The combination of certain Canucks fans – admittedly a small minority – a handful of professional anarchists and highly charged hockey games don’t seem to be a good mix. These mostly male twentysomethings come from all across the Greater Vancouver region. And before long all that testosterone in a confined space spells disaster. Throw in large quantities of alcohol and matches and boom – you have a riot on your hands.

The police response was complicated by the fact that the makeup of the crowd was complex. It included the worst criminal elements, their drunken supporters and thousands of others there to capture the moment for posterity on their video cameras. Given that many were simply curiosity seekers, it made it more difficult for the police to just barge in on horseback, batons a-twirling.

If that hands-off strategy came at the expense of some storefronts and burned-out cars, that was a tradeoff the police were prepared to make. You could replace cars and windows. When you start smashing people over the heads with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets and unleashing dogs on them, you have an entirely different situation.

I’m not a riot expert. But being inside this one it seems they are fairly organic in nature. It is impossible to be sure where people are going to head, what they are going to do, how they are going to respond to police presence. Consequently, I don’t think there is any such thing as the perfect police plan to handle a riot.

Having said that, in this case it seems that the number of officers deemed to be sufficient to control a crowd of more than 100,000 reflected a more optimistic view of what might happen if things began to sour. Perhaps it was a view formed by the positive experiences the police had with the large Olympic crowds in Vancouver.

Hopefully, police learned a valuable, if painful, lesson.

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