The chief of the Halifax Regional Police defended his officers’ actions during Wednesday’s protest against the city’s eviction of homeless people from public parks and green spaces, saying pepper spray was appropriate in the face of aggressive individuals who were “armed” and organized.
Police Chief Dan Kinsella told a news conference Thursday that officers encountered a large crowd of protesters in front of the former library on Spring Garden Road, where city workers had removed a shelter on a flatbed truck and another was destroyed with a chainsaw.
“Officers … were faced with a hostile, aggressive, assaultive, protesting crowd that came equipped, organized and well planned to do what they did,” Kinsella said.
“The officers had to ensure the protection and safety of everyone around, and they did that using their training.”
He said police and municipal staff had already cleared three of the “highest risk” encampments where people were living in tents and shelters in Halifax without incident before moving on to the former Halifax Memorial Library site.
Videos and images from the scene show police with body armour and riot gear pepper spraying some protesters, including at least one child who was in the fray, and using their bicycles to push back the crowds. Some protesters were seen throwing water bottles and milk jugs at police.
Officers were kicked, head-butted and punched, Kinsella said Thursday.
He said a number of the protesters were armed with sensory irritants of their own and projectiles, including some that were thrown at officers. People were seen pouring milk into their eyes to alleviate the burning caused by pepper spray.
Kinsella said police arrested 24 people who now face charges including obstruction of justice, assaulting police, resisting arrest, and mischief. All have been released on promises to appear in court at a later date.
Supt. Andrew Matthews, who was in charge of the deployment of police actions Wednesday, said the officers on scene weighed their options when deciding to use the pepper spray.
Matthews said they “fully expect” the officers who used the irritant to rationalize why they used it.
“At this point in time, I feel there was an appropriate use,” he said.
Kinsella encouraged anyone with video or evidence showing police officers acting in an unsafe or questionable manner during the protest to share it with the force’s professional standards office.
He said that includes information regarding officers who were not wearing name tags during the protest or those wearing the controversial thin blue line patch, in contravention of policy. Kinsella said the situation is being reviewed.
Coun. Lindell Smith, who represents Halifax Peninsula North and is chair of the board of police commissioners, said he would raise those issues at the next board meeting.
Kinsella also addressed reports that police limited the freedom of journalists who were reporting from the protest. He said one reporter was asked multiple times to stand back from the area where machinery was removing a shelter.
“The reporter dealing with the officer refused to comply to the instruction that was meant to keep them safe,” Kinsella said.
When asked about police threatening to arrest journalists as they recorded the events, Kinsella said he didn’t know about those situations and suggested any other complaints should be brought forward.
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Kinsella said enforcement was taken after months of notices issued to people living in municipal parks or on municipal land that they were breaking a bylaw, and a large spike in calls related to the encampments.
He said those calls included alleged assaults, thefts, indecent acts, liquor offences, break and enters, and threats.
“It is our role to protect the public and other users of municipal properties and residents in nearby communities,” Kinsella said. “We cannot also allow … misuse of municipal property to become the norm in our city.”
Kinsella echoed the city’s position that everyone evicted from tents and shelters Wednesday were offered temporary housing, but he could not confirm whether everyone accepted.
At least one person who was living in a tent told CBC News he was not given a housing option Wednesday. Street outreach workers have said there are not enough hotel rooms, shelter beds or housing for everyone.
In an email, HRM spokesperson Laura Wright said the municipality received over 200 calls through 311 regarding homeless encampments between Aug. 19, 2020, and the same date this year.
“It should be noted that these calls are not necessarily all complaint-based and may include general questions pertaining to homeless encampments,” Wright said.
Smith said he and the rest of council knew people might have to be removed from parks, but he was confident in assurances that everyone would at least be offered a place to stay.
The councillor said he’s since learned that some people were not approached, and he hopes to help organizations who work with homeless people to find anyone slipping between the cracks.
Smith said the actions of police Wednesday were in response to concerns over the safety of protesters and officers, and suggested the protest detracted attention from the real issue of homelessness.
“What happened yesterday wasn’t really about folks who would have been in that shelter,” he said.
“It was hard to see so much anger with the police having to be forceful on individuals and spray irritants … really forgetting there was individuals who are on the street right now without a place to be.”