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gary mason

The inquiry into last week's Stanley Cup riot must zero in on one overriding question: When sporadic outbursts of violence morphed into a full-scale riot, how was it that the Vancouver Police Department found itself so badly outnumbered and ill-prepared to handle the braying mob?

It's a question that many officers are asking themselves. At least one senior member of the force said Monday that alarms were sounded internally about the growing threat posed by the tens of thousands of people jamming into the downtown core to watch the Stanley Cup final games on large outdoor television screens.

"Our understanding is the matter was brought up with the people at city hall," said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of his job. "And the chief [Jim Chu]was told that he could put as many officers as he wanted downtown to control the crowds but the money had to come out of the existing budget.

"So city hall, or the mayor or the city manager, didn't turn down a funding request, per se. They said put as many officers on the ground as you think you need. But it has to come out of your overall budget."

The Vancouver Police Department issued a statement Monday in response to questions it has received about the role city hall may have played in strategic decisions that were made about policing the Game 7 crowd.

"Recently the Vancouver Police have received reports of rumours that appear to become more fantastical every day," the release said. "The rumours tend to involve perceived interference with strategic, operational or budgetary police matters from politicians or bureaucrats.

"The VPD would like to make it absolutely clear there is no shred of truth to these rumours."

City manager Penny Ballem did not respond to queries about meetings she had with Chief Chu regarding Game 7 policing plans.

It's perhaps understandable that the two central figures in this matter - Chief Chu and Mayor Gregor Robertson - might be a little sensitive to suggestions that grand screw-ups were made. To some extent, both their reputations are on the line.

If Chief Chu was the primary architect of the police plan heading into the Game 7 event, then he has a lot to answer for. There seems no logical explanation for having only 300 to 400 officers on the ground to handle a crowd of more than 100,000.

During the Olympics, there were more than 400 officers to handle the Granville Street mall alone. And that was to police a far more genteel crowd.

Last Wednesday's Game 7 police plan would seem even more illogical if many of the department's own officers were making noises that the fan zones had been becoming more unstable - mostly because of increased alcohol consumption - with each passing game.

Did Chief Chu raise those concerns with the mayor's office or with Ms. Ballem? For Mr. Robertson, this is a critical line of inquiry, given that we are in a civic election year.

To no one's surprise, Mr. Robertson's chief rival for the mayor's job, Suzanne Anton of the Non-Partisan Association, is already trying to exploit the riot for political gain. And she is blaming Mr. Robertson for spending too much time talking about backyard chickens and not enough time discussing public safety at the live sites where people were watching the hockey games.

Did the police chief express concerns to the mayor about the size of the crowds and his department's ability to control them within the existing operational budget? Is the mayor in any way culpable for the inadequate plan the police appeared to have to handle a 100,000-plus crowd that spun out of control?

The only person with a chance of getting to the bottom of those questions is the head of the independent review looking into the riot.

The terms of reference into the probe were released on Wednesday. It appears the review will be narrowly focused and done in a hurry.

Solicitor-General Shirley Bond said the person heading the inquiry will not have the power to subpoena witnesses. Nor, it can be assumed, will the inquiry head be able to demand any and all e-mails related to police planning around Game 7.

If this inquiry amounts to little more than an academic exercise, which it looks like it will be, it will do little to allay concerns that warnings were ignored and that operational budgets may have played a bigger role in shaping the police department's crowd control plan for Game 7 than people are letting on.