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Unions and community groups want a civilian investigation into the Toronto police force's response to an antipoverty rally last month.

Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino refused to comment on the groups' call yesterday for an inquiry by the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services, an independent, quasi-judicial agency that reports to the Solicitor-General, pending an internal investigation.

More than 500 demonstrators attended the June 15 protest at Queen's Park, co-ordinated by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. It turned violent when a delegation was denied admittance to the legislature.

Some protesters threw stones, broken bricks and smoke bombs at officers in full riot gear and on horseback. Police responded with truncheons and pepper-spray. Twenty-nine officers and dozens of civilians were hurt. Injuries included concussions and fractures, said Anita Young, a nurse who treated protesters at the rally.

Some witnesses and analysts, including Mayor Mel Lastman, the Toronto Police Services Board and the Toronto Police Association, have said police actions were a legitimate response to protesters who came to the demonstration bent on violence.

But 17 community groups and unions -- including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women -- contend police strategy created and escalated the violence.

"If there was a riot, it was by the police. They are trained to de-escalate but they immediately provoked anger [among demonstrators]" Deborah Brock, a York University criminology professor, said at a news conference yesterday.

The officers involved should be disciplined and criminally charged, according to the June 9 letter to the civilian commission from Parkdale Community Legal Services and 16 other groups.

The next commission meeting when the investigation request could be tabled is Aug. 14, said Hyacinthe Miller Josiah, senior adviser to the commission. "But we need more information [before deciding how to respond]" she said.

The force started its own review into police actions at the Queen's Park protest immediately after the rally but does not know when this will be completed, spokesman Sergeant Jim Muscat said. The Toronto Police Services Board will wait for the police report before deciding what followup, if any, is warranted, chairman Norm Gardner said.

The coalition calling for a civilian inquiry said it is essential because police actions at the rally represent a new attitude by police in dealing with people who it says are pushed to take desperate actions by the provincial government's slashes to the social safety net.

But in a statement yesterday, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty opposed the call for an inquiry. ". . . OCAP is not interested in diverting its efforts away from the struggle to defeat the Harris government by focusing on the predictable brutality of its police forces," it said.