June 23rd, 2010

[URBAN NOTE] Toronto and the G20: Two law enforcement notes

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy's Torontoist essay makes for the sort of vaguely unsettling if informative reading I'd reasonably expected when I first read the post's title.

The weekend of the G20 may still be looming, but Torontonians are already over it. With the anticipation of traffic roadblocks, delayed transit, and identification checks, the security measures that one billion dollars can buy are starting to feel like more of a nuisance than an infringement of individual rights. Shouldn’t this be over by now so we can get back to enjoying the post-work patio at Jack Astor’s in peace?

Underneath all the daily irritations bound to besiege Toronto this week, however, is the reality that this weekend marks the most amount of money spent on security for seventy-two hours in Canadian history. Whatever one’s opinions on the politics and effectiveness of the G8 and the G20 summits themselves, a one-billion-dollar shindig seems pretty damn pricey when measured against the London summit (a mere thirty million dollars) and the most recent Pittsburgh meetings (eight million dollars). But there's more to the summits than just the staggering cost. It's what much of the money is for: a security plan reflecting the sum of all fears, one that seems bound to pit protesters and police against one another even as its stated aim is to do the opposite.

Wendy Drummond, a Toronto Police constable, points out that since Ontario is playing host to both the G8 and the G20, the Integrated Security Unit (a team comprised of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Toronto Police Service, Canadian Forces, Peel Regional Police, and other law enforcement agents) faces added obstacles. "We’re dealing with two summits back to back, which has never been done before and possesses its own unique challenges," she says. "Essentially this is a security event, and law enforcement has the duty to protect everyone, including protesters."

The money spent on security, Drummond says, is designed to ensure everyone’s safety, and she confirms that the police have been in communication with several organizations in hopes of facilitating peaceful activism. It may seem odd that anyone's safety would be seriously jeopardized in a publicized peaceful protest—which most of the G20 protests are expected to be—but her stance reflects the logic that brought about the ISU’s existence. "In the post-9/11 climate that we are in, it would be remiss if we did not take all security precautions," Drummond says.

The second article of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to peaceful assembly to every Canadian. To what extent do these rights become malleable in a security situation? When asked if protesters will be protected—and to what degree—from unreasonable search and seizure (Article 8) or arbitrary arrest (Article 9), Drummond remains vague. "It will all depend on the actions of [the protestors]," she says, adding that "our response will be a measured and balanced one." She confirmed that police defence tactics, such as LRADs (sound cannons) and pepper spray "are not new techniques" and will be implemented if necessary.

It's worth noting that the Toronto Police Service's official position on sound cannons is that they aren't weapons, but rather communications devices. Really.

Long-range acoustical devices, commonly referred to as sound cannons, can be used to broadcast prerecorded messages but are also capable of emitting ear-piercing and hearing-damaging alerts that can be heard as far as 1.5 kilometres away.

Activists viewed news of the purchase of devices with suspicion and some, such as the Council of Canadians, have suggested they would hand out earplugs to activists to protect people from hearing loss.

But Blair said the LRADs are a communication device only, and will not be used as a weapon against protesters at the June 26-27 summit of world leaders.

"This is a communication device that has been previously, on other occasions in other jurisdictions, not for communication but as a force option," said Blair.

"It is not our intent and we will not be using this device as a force option. It is, for us, a communication device."