Generals call it the fog of war. In intense military conflicts, disorder and bewilderment often reign. Commanders lose touch with their troops. Orders go astray. The shape of the battle suddenly changes, making mincemeat of the best laid plans.
So it was on June 26 and 27, 2010, when police confronted radical protesters on the streets of Toronto. "The G20 summit was an event unprecedented in Toronto in terms of the size and scope of its security demands and policing requirements," says a report ordered by Police Chief Bill Blair. "It was also the first time that many TPS officers had experienced widespread criminality and mass public disorder."
The result was mass confusion. The picture painted in the report is of a police force that was simply overwhelmed by the complexity of the events on that wild weekend in June. Fast-moving groups of Black Bloc vandals outflanked and outmanoeuvred riot cops. Police with little training in crowd control and the wrong equipment for the job could not react swiftly enough to the ever-changing situation.
Police commanders in the street were not fully involved in drawing up crowd-control plans and had only a hazy idea of what the plan, in fact, was. The police radio system broke down when everyone started talking at once.
At the vast holding tank on Eastern Avenue, a carefully organized system for processing prisoners rounded up on the streets fell apart completely when hundreds started pouring in on Saturday night. The single court booking officer on duty couldn't cope with the paperwork. Waiting prisoners were herded into pre-booking cells, many still in handcuffs, and some had to cool their heels for up to 24 hours. Others had to wait several hours just to use the phone.
On the streets, messages poured into the command centre about the shifting movements of the radical protesters. The report's minute-by-minute timeline gives a sense of how fast things were changing. At 2:29 p.m. on Saturday, a police line on Queen Street West "was breached by an aggressive crowd." At 2:47 p.m., officers reported being attacked with golf balls, paint and rocks. At 3:37, Black Bloc vandals wrecked two police cars at King and Bay.
Police simply could not keep up. "After the deployment of officers in a particular location, the crowd would move, splinter off, and then double back." Police had to consider the safety of their own, inadequately equipped officers. Often, commanders ordered them to withdraw rather than risk getting hurt.
At 7:35 p.m. Saturday, after an afternoon of vandalism downtown, commanders ordered police to use breach-of-the-peace powers to round up any protesters who had not dispersed. "Public order had to be restored before nightfall," they reasoned. That controversial directive led to the arrests of scores of people, including those gathered at the Novotel Hotel, where 200 people were boxed in by police.
On Sunday night, with reports of a renewed Black Bloc threat coming in, police boxed in another crowd at Queen and Spadina - the now-infamous "kettling" incident. Scores more people, many of them faultless, were arrested or forced to stand in the pouring rain before senior commanders finally and belatedly called the operation off. The report dryly observes that, in future, "persons not involved in the event must have ... a route of egress."
Chief Blair's report fails to address several key questions. Was it really necessary to round up so many people - 1,118 in all, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history? Why didn't police make it clearer to crowds - for example, at Queen's Park - that they had to disperse or face arrest? Why were so many roughed up in the process, including media types who were simply doing their job?
Several other inquiries now under way may provide more answers. In the meantime, the chief has promised to learn from what he calls "a hard look at ourselves."