Behaviour, not beliefs, determine EPS response to protests: Chief McFee

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Edmonton Police Service leaders came to the department’s defence Friday after a fiery public response at the Edmonton Police Commission meeting threatened to get out of hand.

Under fire for dispersing a protest turned into an encampment early Saturday at the University of Alberta, Chief Dale McFee called a news conference to dispel circulating rumours ranging from tear gas to rough treatment.

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“We plan for and respond in proportion to the circumstances we face on the ground. And there is a difference between a protest and an encampment. In Canada, each of us has rights and each of us has a responsibility to ensure the rights are expressed in a manner that does not obstruct, intimidate or infringe upon the rights of others, including the right to safety as police. We don’t take sides, and many passionate folks on either side of an issue will hate us for that,” McFee said.

“People across communities have also expressed their fears to us about the changing nature of the protests,” McFee said.

“They are seeing worries that frustration is building within their communities and that bad actors — and to be clear, sometimes described as agitators — are influencing and exploiting some of these vulnerable groups. There are those who seek to move these demonstrations in a more aggressive, more disruptive, disruptive, and frankly, unsafe directions,” he said, adding that it has been a global shift.

“Our world is changing in a small but increasing number of people assume that our expectation of what is acceptable behaviour is changing, too. I will say again and again. We do not police beliefs. We police behaviour,” he said.

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Video from Saturday’s escalation was shown, and the timeline recounted.

U of A peace officers informed the protesters they were not welcome to camp on university grounds overnight, said Deputy Chief Devin LaForce.

“The group continued to refuse the direction from the peace officers. signs were later posted around the encampment and peace officers continued to inform them that they could not stay, verbally telling them that they were trespassing,” said LaForce.

At its peak, there were 120 people and 40 tents overnight on May 10, he said.

An eviction order was read after 4:30 a.m. the following day, Saturday, and the EPS arrived shortly after.

Video showed protesters repeatedly ordered to “Move!” as a line of EPS members advanced, close together, with batons but not shields, helmets, or masks.

Footage showed one officer swinging a baton, but not in a striking motion.

Pictures of material found at the site showed a cache of fire extinguishers and pallets that were delivered to the protesters (items that have been used for beating back or blinding police and building and setting fire to structures at protests at other demonstrations), drug paraphernalia, and a how-to guide to illegal encampments published by a university in Illinois.

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“The unpleasantness of watching any video of a use of force doesn’t mean that the use of force was excessive. Even completely reasonable uses of force will be uncomfortable for most people to watch. That’s normal and to be expected,” said Insp. Lance Parker.

There was no liquid spray, tear gas, grenades or flashbangs used by the EPS, Parker said.

“To prevent the crowd from interfering with these arrests, 10 to 15 pepper balls were shot into the ground, and there was one muzzle blast of what was also an OC powder (oleoresin capsicum derived from peppers)(fired into the ground)” he said.

As the crowd dispersed and became co-operative, EPS members reduced the show of force, Parker said.

“Behaviour will always dictate actions from police,” he said.

There were a total of three arrests for assault, none of them university students, EPS said, with one arrestee known to have been part of other protests for several years.

A paramedic was embedded with the EPS, and arrested protesters were offered medical help; none was required, he said.

The encampment was cleared by 5:25 a.m.

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A protest later that day, including a march of 1,200 demonstrators, was more orderly and not of an encampment nature and was permitted, media heard.

“We have intelligence leading up to this (encampment) event that this group was becoming disillusioned with conventional forms of protest and felt the need to escalate activities so they would get what they want. We’re also now seeing some continued behaviours that can be described as bullying, harassment and intimidation. These activities are not lawfully protesting a cause. They’re stepping on the rights of others and potentially committing criminal acts through intimidation by things such as doxing,” LaForce said.

There have been at least separate instances of “doxing” — harassing things like exposing home addresses and family members of EPS members in retaliation.

“These are under investigation right now and if found to be criminal, charges will be pursued,” LaForce said.

New tags have been ordered for EPS members that will reveal a regimental number, not a name, Chief McFee said.

The demonstration tally for EPS over the past 16 months is more than 800 and counting, LaForce said.

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“These are complex and often dynamic situations for police agencies, as officers have the difficult task of balancing the public’s right to free speech and enforcing the law,” LaForce said.

“To be clear, camping on university lands is trespassing. It will not be tolerated. Charter rights do not come without responsibility for actions and do not outweigh unlawful actions. Our officers are increasingly called upon to lead local manifestations of conflicts that are occurring around the world. Respectful political discourse is critical democracy, as is respecting the law.”

Edmonton’s Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish communities have historically been able to reach across divides to build understanding, McFee said.

“Personally, I believe this is one of the reasons we have mostly seen peaceful protests, openness, even in the midst of such pain and tragedy. And I will say I think our communities have, for the most part, shown great respect for each other, for the diversity of beliefs that exist in our city and for the safety of our citizens,” McFee said.

Community leaders from all sides of the debate have reached out to EPS over the past seven months with their fears about the safety and security of their communities, he said.

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