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EPS defends police actions during U of A encampment clearing

Edmonton’s police chief is defending the police’s clearing of a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Alberta last weekend, saying that safety concerns, signs of entrenchment and local police intelligence were among the factors that led to the dismantling of the camp.

On Friday, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) gave a detailed timeline of the encampment and the police response, starting from when the encampment was erected and ending with ongoing investigations that, officials said, could result in criminal charges. 

“We hope we never have to do it. We hope people comply with the orders and they just leave,” said police Chief Dale McFee during a news conference on Friday.

“I wish people would have just left peacefully when they were asked — not maybe the first or second time, but at least the third to the sixth time. It would have been a little easier for everybody.”

The encampment was set up in the main quad of the U of A on May 9. Two days later, at the university’s request, police cleared it.

The response, including the force used, has come under public scrutiny.

The Alberta government announced this week that it plans to ask the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team — which investigates incidents where police may have caused serious injury or death — to examine the U of A and University of Calgary encampment clearings. 

The Edmonton police commission is also asking for more information about EPS policies regarding protest management and wearing name tags.

“The choices police make in these complex public safety environments are not ones that we make haphazardly,” said Deputy Chief Devin Laforce, of the EPS investigations bureau, at the news conference.

“These are based on significant expertise and reviews, and paying attention to similar events that occur in other major cities.”

Demonstrators warned 6 times, police say

Demonstrators ignored six official trespass and eviction warnings, police said, and campus peace officers first informed organizers they could not stay overnight when the camp was built in the early morning of May 9

Signs were installed around the camp and peace officers told demonstrators they were trespassing several more times. The final eviction notice came Saturday morning while police were on scene.

The camp grew over those two days. The number of people fluctuated depending on the time of day, but police believe it peaked at 120 people and 40 tents on the evening of May 9.

University officials grew concerned, as encampment organizers made calls to action, such as “Protect our students,” and requested various supplies, police said.

The assumed intent was that the encampment would try to entrench itself, garnering greater support so it could overrun U of A peace officers, Laforce said. 

“If the camp were to become very entrenched, then this would subsequently require a more dynamic and resource-heavy response, that could result in the potential of more people being hurt and certainly a greater threat to public safety,” Laforce said.

On May 10, campus peace officers posted more trespass notices and organizers received several deliveries of wooden palettes — which Laforce described as “occupation supply,” as they have been used to, among other things, fortify camps, build structures and fuel fires in other places.

University and EPS officials were in touch for several days before the U of A called in police to clear the camp, Laforce said.

The university tries to balance freedom of expression with community safety, but safety is “always foremost in our decision-making,” as was the case when deciding to disperse the camp, a university spokesperson told CBC News in a statement Friday.

Police, aware of similar encampments at other Canadian university campuses, knew there were “escalating activities” at the U of A, Laforce said.

A crowd of people gather on the Alberta Legislature grounds. The sky is clouded with wildfire smoke. Some Palestinian flags are being waved. The legislature stands hazy in the background.
People gather on the legislative grounds for a pro-Palestinian protest in Edmonton. The previously scheduled protest on May 11, 2024, happened hours after police cleared an encampment at the University of Alberta that was in support of Gaza. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Police said at the news conference that intelligence suggested that many students were afraid and intimidated, and that many people at the encampment were not students.

EPS was unable to give reporters an estimate of how many at the camp were U of A students. Previous statements from university president Bill Flanagan suggest about one quarter were students.

People who attended the encampment have said many demonstrators were pegged as having no ties to the university, although they may have been faculty members or U of A alumni. They also said the encampment was respectful.

“Our encampment had no violent behaviour for them to police in the first place,” Nour Salhi, a student who acted as a spokesperson for the encampment, told reporters Friday.

“We were praying together. We were sitting together, making art together. I don’t understand how that is a policeable action.”

Sweep took about 20 minutes: police

Police arrived at the U of A around 4:45 a.m. on May 11. Officers witnessed some demonstrators acting as sentries, cycling back to the camp to warn about incoming police, Laforce said.

At the camp, some demonstrators had formed a row by linking their arms together, he said.

At 4:55 a.m., campus peace officers read the final eviction notice, at which point about half the camp left.

Shortly after 5 a.m., officers performed a measured advance — a law enforcement tactic used throughout the continent, according to Insp. Lance Parker.

Police shouted, “Move,” to demonstrators consistently while stepping forward in unison, he said. 

By 5:25 a.m., the encampment was fully cleared and no serious injuries were reported, police said. Demonstrators, however, have said four students were injured, including one who was sent to hospital.

Police arrested three men, one of whom was previously known to EPS through other protests over the past several years. Police said they were charged with assault of a police officer and assault at an obstruction.

Two of the men were arrested during the initial clash after they resisted police and reached for officers’ batons, police said.

“This clash with the protesters, all things considered, was incredibly minimal,” Parker said.

Use of force

Videos taken by demonstrators last Saturday, which were posted to social media, showed some officers using batons and, at one point, gas started forming during the sweep.

Police showed video surveillance footage of the initial clash, when police used their batons, offering a different angle than the videos on social media. Parker suggested that, after police used their batons, the crowd became more docile, which allowed police to use less force from then on.

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

Parker reiterated that tear gas was not used. But officers fired 10 to 15 pepper balls — non-lethal ammunition filled with pepper spray, similar to a paintball — toward the ground to deter people from trying to break up arrests.

A muzzle blast containing pepper spray was also used, he said.

ID tags will not include officer names

Photos have circulated online of some of the police officers at the university last weekend, which, police say, has led to behaviour akin to bullying, harassment and intimidation such as doxxing — searching for and publishing private or identifying information of someone online.

Police are investigating 11 incidents in which people shared officer names, address information and social media posts from officers’ relatives, Laforce said. 

Some of the visuals that have circulated showed officers without name tags while wearing their chest guards — although some still had their regimental number. 

McFee said that EPS should be changing its identification policy within two weeks.

The change will see officers wear ID tags that only feature their regimental number, he said, adding that it will be enough for EPS to know who attended a scene like the U of A last weekend, given the amount of visual evidence.

“We have to go to all ends to protect, obviously, our officers and their safety, but at the same time be accountable and transparent to the public, which we believe strongly that this will,” McFee said.

University president out-of-country

While the encampment clearing occurred, university president Bill Flanagan was out of the country, a U of A spokesperson confirmed to CBC News.

Flanagan is on a previously scheduled work trip to Cortona, Italy, to mark the 25th anniversary of the university’s satellite campus there, the spokesperson said.

“While there he is engaged with the situation back home and is attending important meetings virtually,” the spokesperson said, adding that Flanagan is still working closely with senior leadership on campus.

University officials have met with members of its students’ union and staff and alumni associations, and the school is trying to “move forward collaboratively and meaningfully” with them, the spokesperson said.

It is clear members of the U of A community are “hurt and in turmoil,” they said, adding that further discussions will occur.

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