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Independent review harshly critical of Hamilton Police Service in 2019 Gage Park disturbance

Organizers of the ill-fated Hamilton Pride 2019 event in Gage Park were critical of the year it took to produce the report but they have to be happy with the result. The report pretty much substantiated the complaints that had been levelled at the Hamilton Police Service in the wake of the violence that broke out at the event organized to celebrate the  Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities.

The 125-page report, authored Scott Bergman of the Toronto Law firm Cooper, Sandler, Shime and Bergman LLP, said police response before, during and after the event was inadequate. Prior to the event the report described several botched organizational meetings between organizers and police that were postponed or cancelled and emails sent to a police community organizer who had in fact retired. The main conversation regarding policing the event was a 12 -minute phone call two days before the event out of which a hastily-developed operational plan was written up.

A critical feature of events leading up to the event was the decision to deny HPS a recruiting booth at the event. Organizers of the Pride Event alleged that Hamilton Police, miffed at not being welcome in the park, were slow to respond to the violence. In the wake of the event Chief Eric Girt made remarks that were “taken by many to mean that the police responded slowly and inadequately to the violence at Gage Park because Hamilton Pride organizers did not “welcome” the police at the event and refused to grant the HPS a recruitment booth.” Gird denied that was his intent. But persons who were at the Pride Event reported police officers on the scene making similar comments. Wrote Bergman:

To be clear, whether police are allowed to recruit at Pride or formally participate in the celebrations in other ways, they are not relieved of their responsibility to keep the peace and maintain public order. The absence of an invitation to join the festivities must not in any way impact the manner in which the HPS prepares for and polices events.

The police security plan for the event consisted of deploying two plain clothes officers to be at the event, circulating as participants and four uniformed officers outside the park ready to move in if required. When the violence broke out, the four officers were unable to contain the outbreak and reinforcements were called in. Eventually dozens of officers arrived at the Park but most of the violence had taken place before police arrived in force. At the same time as the Pride event there was a demonstration at Hamilton City Hall by Alt-right yellow vesters and that had siphoned off a number of officers.

Noting that Hamilton Police had frequently told him that they felt restrained by Canada’s freedom of speech laws from taking more aggressive action against the yellow vest protestors, Bergman disagreed, noting:

HPS officers are peace officers and do have the power to issue trespass to property warnings to people who are engaged in improper, offensive or disruptive behavior on city property. If those who are warned do not comply they can be arrested and escorted off the property. To date, this power has not been employed but the HPS’s senior command should seriously reconsider doing so.

Several times in interviews with officers who were at the event, Bergman was told that officers felt they could only issue assault charges upon receiving a complaint. He commented on one incident when a person was punched in front of an officer:

While the victim of the assault refused to be identified or provide a statement to officers, it is unclear why a charge of assault was not laid given that an officer was a direct witness to the incident.

Throughout the report Bergman was pointedly critical of the words and actions of Chief Eric Girt, referring specially to remarks the chief made on the Bill Kelly Show shortly after the event where he made awkward reference to certain gay sex practices that outraged members of the community. Wrote Bergman,

Bergman’s report was critical of Chief Eric Girt’s public comments after the event.

The Chief is the head of and public voice for the HPS. The Chief sets the tone for the entire HPS and how it is perceived throughout Hamilton and beyond. The comments made on the Bill Kelly Show have, to many, irreparably harmed the chances for mending the relationship between the HPS and the Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities in Hamilton. One of the views expressed by community members is that these comments have disqualified Chief Girt from his position and that a new Chief should be appointed.

In the aftermath of the incident, there was criticism for what some saw as police arresting  gay defenders, a group of masked individuals who were believed connected to the Anarchist group, the Tower, who had earlier had several members arrested for a rampage of vandalism through Locke Street, as opposed to the right wing religious agitators who invaded the event. Again Bergman took aim at the notion that laying an assault charge requires a formal complaint.

 Reasonable and probable grounds can be formed with evidence from the victim, but even without a cooperating victim, prosecutions can and frequently do proceed with eyewitnesses, third party witnesses, video footage and/or photos. A cooperating victim is important but is not essential to criminal prosecutions.

The report made 37 recommendation including a recommendation to make six separate apologies or declarations of fault. In addition to numerous operational recommendations related to policing Pride events, there were numerous recommendations related to sensitivity training around Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities, and greater engagement with those communities.

The reports findings were completely at odds with a report issued by Hamilton Police to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) which concluded police responded properly to the violence at Hamilton’s Pride festival last year, and did the best they could with what they knew about the threat.

The full Scott Bergman report is here.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger issued the following statement:

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