Halifax police ‘declined an interview.’ Take 2

A Halifax Regional Police officer with no name tag, wearing a dark cap, wraparound sunglasses and a black mask, pepper spraying someone
A Halifax Regional Police officer with no name tag pepper sprayed protesters who were sitting on a wall helping others who’d already been pepper sprayed on Aug. 18, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Where to begin? Here. Again.

CBC requested an interview with HRP to discuss the events of the protest. 

HRP declined, citing the ongoing external review. 

In last week’s column, I followed up on the CBC Atlantic Investigation Unit’s year-long struggle to wrest 11 years of internal discipline decisions from the Halifax Regional Police.

The CBC filed a freedom of information request. Request denied. The CBC appealed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Before that case could be heard, the police relented, sort of, water-dripping information from the files over the next year in ways that were often “too heavily redacted” to even be understood. The back and forth continued until the two sides signed a consent order in which the police “acknowledged it should not have withheld information about its internal discipline decisions from the CBC.”

But when CBC reporters asked for an interview — presumably to ask why the police had withheld the information in the first place, who made that decision and had anyone been held accountable — “the department declined to do an interview.”

This week’s instalment of don’t-ask-us focuses on one of the cases the CBC eventually pried information about from Halifax police — the infamous clash between police and protesters over the dismantling of homeless encampments on August 18, 2021.

According to the reports the CBC obtained, HRP officers filed 29 post-incident use of force reports, including 11 from officers who said they’d used pepper spray on people, including some in which the officers acknowledged directly targeting faces.

A month after the clash, then newly-elected NDP MLA Lisa Lachance — who’d attended the protest among a group “facing one of the lines of police, trying to … just have a conversation and just say we need to de-escalate” — asked the police to investigate its use of force during the incident.

Seven months later, Halifax Police Chief Dan Kinsella, after conducting an internal review, claimed the department had simply been “acting lawfully.” He noted that, according to police video, officers told the crowd to “move back” or “move back, please” more than 40 times in the first four minutes of the video.

“Protesters,” he wrote, “ignored these commands and pushed forward. It appeared the crowd had an agenda they were determined to follow through.”

Kinsella once again “declined” to be interviewed by the CBC about the protest or the police response to it. He claimed he can’t say anything because of the “ongoing external review,” one that is not even expected to be delivered until next June, nearly three years after the August 2021 incident. That is, frankly, self-serving claptrap.

But let’s look at some information the chief didn’t mention in his internal report.

It is doubtful, for example, that the chief interviewed any of the protesters or read the first-person accounts of journalists like the Examiner’s Zane Woodford who documented in detail what happened at the site of the former downtown library after police handcuffed and arrested one protester who’d been negotiated down off a shelter roof. He wrote:

That’s when police really lost control of the situation.

Officers started bringing the protester to the Grafton Street side of the property, where they’d placed other protesters in vehicles for booking. But then they turned around and brought the protester up to a waiting vehicle on Brunswick Street.The crowd, now easily more than 200, followed and tried to block the police vehicle from leaving. That’s when the pepper spraying started.

Police arrested one protester they’d pepper sprayed and brought him to a vehicle waiting on the sidewalk around the corner on Doyle Street. Protesters blocked that vehicle in, but officers eventually pushed back and managed to back it out onto Brunswick Street, and then drive forward toward the police station.

That vehicle was basically plowing through protesters, one of them threw a water bottle at it, and in the commotion, an officer fell over and was quickly picked back up.

Then other officers started pepper spraying indiscriminately — hitting a young girl with her parents, along with several other protesters.Even after the scene had calmed down, one officer continued to pepper spray people who were just sitting on the wall along Brunswick Street. Several minutes later, there were officers still walking around with pepper spray drawn.

Protesters eventually made their way back to the remaining shelter, now with no one on the roof to stop its removal. The city changed its tactics for the second one, sending in a team of workers with power tools to dismantle the shelter.While getting that team through the police line, there was another clash between protesters and cops, and more pepper spray. Police put on their full riot gear. By this time the crowd grew to well over a thousand people, facing off against at least 200 police officers. Police stood shoulder to shoulder, wielding batons and shields…

That’s a far more complex, nuanced account of what happened than Chief Kinsella’s description of a crowd with an agenda being asked to “move back” and “move back, please” by friendly neighbourhood police officers.

Perhaps the police videographer should have kept filming past the four-minute mark.

There’s little doubt some in the crowd that day were looking for a confrontation with police, but it’s also obvious HRP’s “indiscriminately pepper-spraying” police officers — many of whom didn’t wear required visible name tags to identify them — made a tense situation much worse.

The police goal in such a situation should be to de-escalate, not ramp up the violence.

The police action on August 18, 2021, was a failure.

“How do we do this next time?” Lachance asked CBC reporter Shaina Luck. “People protest. That’s a right we have in Canada, and I want that to be done safely. We need to be able to do that in our society, and I didn’t see a path forward.”

There are no lessons to be learned from Chief Kinsella’s offensive-defensive “acting lawfully” internal report

Worse, by declining once again to be publicly accountable for his report and his force’s actions, Kinsella — the third highest-paid municipal employee at $258,692.39 last year — is telling Haligonians he doesn’t care.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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