Lack of communication defined city of Ottawa’s response to ‘Freedom Convoy’, audit finds
An audit of the city of Ottawa’s response to the ‘Freedom Convoy’ demonstration has found that the city was not adequately prepared to respond to the major protest, largely because of a lack of communication.
The audit, performed by the city’s auditor general Nathalie Gougeon, concluded that the city’s emergency coordination team was not engaged prior to the convoy’s arrival, which delayed the city’s ability to plan and prepare for the protest. It also found intelligence shared by the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) was insufficient, and there were inadequate attempts to engage the city’s traffic management experts in planning for the impacts on downtown streets.
The city also did not adequately inform residents about services that were available to help those in the so-called “red zone” of the protest downtown, including wellness checks and grocery and medicine deliveries. While there were many requests from residents for intervention from Ottawa Bylaw, a significant number went unaddressed, the audit found, with no communication to the residents who requested help. There was also a lack of documentation on city decisions during the protest.
Three audits were requested in March 2022, shortly after the convoy protest was cleared out in a major police response on the heels of the Emergencies Act’s invocation. Former city manager Steve Kanellakos had asked for an evaluation of the city’s response and the Ottawa Police Services Board approved a motion to have Gougeon look at both the OPS’s handling of the convoy protest and the police board’s.
Gougeon stated that the audit does have the benefit of hindsight and it includes several recommendations on how to improve response to a future incident of this magnitude.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION IN LEAD-UP TO ARRIVAL
The issue of communication— and the lack thereof—was a key finding in the audit into the city’s response. The Ottawa Police Service was the lead agency in preparing for the protest. In the days leading up to the convoy’s arrival, the audit found that the OPS did not consider the city’s office of emergency management (OEM) a significant partner in the lead-up that began Jan. 14 ahead of the convoy’s arrival on Jan. 29. The OEM didn’t reach out to police until Jan. 24.
“Once the magnitude of the event, the possibility of high risk and the likelihood of significant impacts to the City were known, the OEM should have been notified by both the OPS and other City departments who were contacted,” the audit concluded. “Had the OEM been engaged sooner, they likely would have started centralized planning prior to January 25, 2022. Without adequate communication and sharing of information between City departments and the OEM, there was a delay in getting a central coordination function in place to plan for the event.”
OPS AUDIT CONCLUSION:
In her audit into the Ottawa Police Service’s response, Gougeon noted that because most protests are not deemed as a City “emergency”, the OEM would not be a typical partner for the OPS in planning for the event, and a process does not exist for notifying the OEM.
“Although each City department had a responsibility to raise significant concerns to management, once the magnitude of the event, the possibility of it being high risk and the likelihood of significant impacts to the City were known, the OEM should have been notified by the OPS,” the audit found.
NO COLLABORATION ON TRAFFIC PLAN
Police prepared a 46-page traffic plan for managing the protest, but did not share it with the city or collaborate with the city’s traffic management experts in its development. The audit found the city’s traffic department was reacting to police requests, such as asking for barriers. It wasn’t until Feb. 21 that OPS engaged the city’s traffic department. By then, police had cleared the protesters out of downtown.
The audit did find positive collaboration overall between the city and the Ottawa Police Service during the protest. City staff helped police in providing supplies and facilities available for police agencies. OPS also accompanied city staff who needed to access the “red zone” despite resources being stretched thin by the protest.
OPS AUDIT CONCLUSION:
In her audit into the Ottawa Police Service’s response, she found the OPS only provided a brief, single-page plan showing police unit posts tothe City’s Traffic Management unit on Jan. 29, 2022, the day the convoy arrived.
“Despite the OPS’s plan being based on information that was constantly changing and the fact that the behaviour of incoming protesters was unpredictable, sharing the established traffic plan, when it was in a sufficiently finalized state, would have enabled the City to be better prepared,” the audit found. The audit said that because of this, Transit Services found itself in the position of having to re-route, create detours, post signage, and get information out to the public all at the last minute.
Furthermore, first two weeks of the convoy protest, the OPS did not leverage the expertise of, nor collaborate with the Traffic Management unit for ongoing traffic management. This created a chaotic situation for city traffic planners, who were reacting to police requests without adequate information about why the requests were being made.
CITY’S EMERGENCY OPERATIONS GROUP ONLY MET ONCE
The audit found the city’s emergency operations centre control group, chaired by the City Manager and comprised of the City’s senior leadership team and others including the Fire Chief, Paramedic Chief, Chief Librarian, Medical Officer of Health, and the Ottawa Police Chief, only met once during the three weeks.
“Without having regular EOCCG meetings with documentation of key decisions made, there is no evidence that the group carried out its responsibilities,” the audit said.
Part of the issue was due to the constraints on the police chief during the protest, but the audit found no evidence collective discussions amongst control group members to establish overall objectives and provide direction on City priorities and strategies.
CITY FAILED TO INFORM RESIDENTS HOW TO GET HELP
The city had engaged its human needs task force to provide assistance to residents who were stuck in the heart of the protest, some of whom were unable or unwilling obtain basic needs such as groceries or medicine for reasons that include store closures, mobility issues, a lack of public transit, and fear of harassment from protesters. However, the audit found the city made no significant effort to inform residents about these services.
“No advertising or information was provided through public service announcements or social media. The only public announcement with information on how to get emergency assistance was found in a statement made by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) in collaboration with the CSSD on February 14, 2022. However, this was already over two weeks into the protest,” the audit concluded.
The audit found that residents and community groups rallied to help affected residents.
“Residents found these community initiatives to be most helpful to them during the emergency. It appeared to them that none of these initiatives were City-led,” the audit said.
BYLAW TOLD NOT TO ‘SPARK’ RIOT, FAILED TO RESPOND TO RESIDENTS
Ottawa Bylaw officers handed out 3,182 parking tickets in the city’s downtown, mostly to protesters but also to residents and members of the media.
Bylaw responders were frequently told by police not to be “the spark” that would incite riots or trigger violence from protesters, as police would not have the capacity to respond. Bylaw officers only entered the red zone accompanied by police, and as such, many convoy vehicles were not ticketed. Protesters also removed licence plates and hid their vehicle identification numbers in attempt to avoid tickets.
Bylaw only issued two tickets for noise infractions and one for encumbering a highway.
Bylaw officers also failed to respond to resident complaints to inform them when and why files were closed without action being taken. Public consultation heard from 229 respondents who noted that they reported a concern to the City and did not receive a response and/or action on their concern.
“Residents felt ignored and abandoned by the City as a result of the lack of enforcement and communication.”
Reports to Ottawa Bylaw were often closed without action because of concerns for staff safety.
CITY UNSURE IF INJUNCTION WOULD HELP BEFORE PRIVATE INJUNCTION GRANTED
On Feb. 7, an injunction to silence the horns was granted thanks to an application from a private citizen and a local lawyer.
The city of Ottawa had been discussing the option, but there was disagreement about its usefulness, the audit found and it was discussed among only a small number of emergency management officials. The city first instructed legal counsel to prepare draft materials for an injunction Feb. 4, three days before the injunction was obtained by private citizen Zexi Li. The city’s own injunction motion wasn’t granted until Feb. 14. The audit also found that legal services did not present the city with all possible options about an injunction until the private injunction was achieved.
“In the first two weeks of the protest, the City was concerned about submitting an injunction application for a number of reasons, including: belief that there was limited value in applying for an injunction for which OPS did not have the resources to enforce and concern that an injunction could have negative consequences or could negatively impact the activities of police,” the audit found.
COUNCILLORS DID NOT UNDERSTAND ROLE WITH REGARD TO POLICE
The audit also found that city councillors failed to adequately act appropriately with regard to police and the Ottawa Police Services Board, particularly during the contentious city council meeting held on Feb. 16, 2022, when OPSB chair Diane Deans was replaced, along with several other members of the independent police oversight board.
“Councillors who are not on the OPSB do not have a direct role in the oversight of the police service,” the audit said. “While they may ask questions in public meetings of the OPSB and chief of police, they are not entitled to participate in closed meetings, have access to confidential operational information, or have input into Board decisions (such as hiring of the Chief of Police or Deputy Chiefs).”
During the Feb. 16 meeting, several Councillors asked about the authority of the OPSB in hiring an interim chief without consulting Council. The audit said that this showed a lack of understanding of Council’s role relative to the oversight of police, despite training provided to councillors.
“During a crisis such as the convoy protest, it is understandable that Councillors wanted access to additional police-related information. However, it is important that Councillors clearly understand where their right to information ends and the role of the independent oversight board. Otherwise, Council involvement could be perceived as politicizing police services,” the audit concluded.
The audit into the city’s response largely recommends the city and OPS work more collaboratively in the lead-up to large scale events that have the potential to have a significant impact on city operations. It’s recommended the city establish clear, formal protocols for communication with police, city management and council.
Management agreed with all 20 recommendations the auditor general made to the city, and four to the Ottawa Police Service. Timelines for implementation vary from the end of the first quarter of 2023 to the end of the fourth quarter of 2024.
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