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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaking to The Globe and Mail on June 24, 2011, following the release of a report on the police action during the G20. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaking to The Globe and Mail on June 24, 2011, following the release of a report on the police action during the G20. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

g20 anniversary

The two sides of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair Add to ...

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the G20 summit, there were two versions of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair on display.

The first was contrite, admitting that there were problems with the way officers handled protests in failing to stop a small group of black-clad vandals from smashing up the downtown, and that administrative "deficiencies" at a temporary detention centre left some arrestees without access to lawyers and medical evaluations.

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The second, however, was combative, defending the decision to round up hundreds of peaceful protesters and saying that, despite a months-long review of policing at the summit, he did not know whether the RCMP or other police forces at the Integrated Security Unit headquarters in Barrie, Ont., had given orders that added to the confusion on the streets during those fateful days.

Throughout his six years in charge, Chief Blair has earned a reputation for admitting to, and grappling with, the force's problems, from racial profiling to a lack of women and minorities serving as police. His handling of such files has burnished the force's image and built bridges with the community - all of which has seemed very remote over the last year, in the backlash that followed the summit.

On Friday afternoon, he explained the rationale behind the most controversial decision of that weekend, to perform the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. After police failed to stop the Black Bloc during their smashing spree on June 26, the main day of protests, it was necessary to disperse - or arrest - everyone on the streets to prevent Bloc members hiding amid peaceful protesters from doing any further damage, he said.

"Of course, we're there to protect peoples' rights to demonstrate lawfully and peacefully, but when there is a significant threat to public safety and a breach of the peace, we've got to take the steps necessary to protect the innocent people of this city and to protect property," he told The Globe and Mail. "Dispersing the large crowd can be a very effective tactic in limiting the risk that those who engage in Black Bloc tactics would pose to the rest of the city."

He stopped short, however, of saying whether these actions were justified or how commanders would be held accountable for their decisions: The purpose of his review was only to explain what happened and why, not to pass judgment on it.

Some took issue with his narrative.

Mike Barber says police didn't give him the chance to disperse before he was arrested, along with hundreds of others, during a peaceful sit-in outside a downtown hotel later that evening.

"At one point, [police]told us either we could give ourselves up peacefully and be arrested, or they were going to take us," said the 34-year-old film editor and activist. "There was no option to leave."

Others, meanwhile, argued against the reasoning that led to the arrests.

"In our view, to arrest for a breach of the peace, you have to have an individual assessment that someone committed a breach of the peace or may commit a breach. You can't just arrest everyone sitting peacefully because you think, in that crowd, there may be some trouble-makers," said Nathalie Des Rosiers of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

But as withering as the criticism of chief and force has been over the last year, it could have been much worse had it not been for the progressive image painstakingly created over the five previous years.

"A lot of the goodwill that he had built up helped. I think the public has shown that they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. … It's seen as a unique situation," said defence lawyer Courtney Betty, who has observed the force's attempts to modernize under Chief Blair. "I think at the end of the day, the chief coming forward and saying 'we made mistakes' was a bold move and will help with building the bridges."

And amid his defensiveness Friday, much of that willingness to acknowledge problems was evident, along with a clear desire to do things better the next time around. Police must find better ways of extracting people from crowds, he said; they also should look at leaving an exit between police lines, rather than fully boxing in, or "kettling" people, as they did at the G20.

But perhaps Chief Blair's most reflective moment came not in discussing the G20 directly, but in commenting on the riot that struck Vancouver nearly a year later after the Canucks' Stanley Cup loss.

"I know that they're going to be criticized if they allow that destruction to happen and they're going to be criticized with equal vigour if they go in and stop it," he said of Vancouver police. "And I think there's a lesson in that for policing in this country, that we have to find a tactical response to that type of a threat that is acceptable to the broader Canadian public but also protects the public interest and public safety."

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