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Police miscues fuelled smouldering Vancouver riot

Douglas Keefe, left, and John Furlong display their report on the Stanley Cup riot at a news conference in Vancouver on Sept. 1, 2011.

Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver police underestimated both the number of drunken fans who would show up for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoff, and how early they would arrive – a pair of miscalculations that helped to fuel one of the worst riots in Canada's history.

That is the picture painted by a long-awaited independent review into the June 15 riots that swept Vancouver, an orgy of looting, arson and mayhem that blackened the city's international reputation.

"The police came on time. The problem was that a great many people arrived early, and great numbers were drunk when they arrived or drank openly after they got there," concluded the report's authors, former Nova Scotia deputy attorney general Doug Keefe and former VANOC head John Furlong.

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But the report says no "plausible number" of police officers could have prevented the rampage once 155,000 people flooded downtown Vancouver that evening as the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. And by the time the VPD was fully deployed, a drunken crowd had swelled in the downtown, and any effort at that point to keep liquor out of the fan zones was futile.

While their report eschews any formal blame, it details miscues and missed opportunities to contain the riot:

- The Vancouver police wanted to control access to the downtown celebrations tightly through issuing tickets and inspecting all revellers for alcohol – but city officials said no, citing time and budget constraints.

- A critical half-hour delay in deploying riot police as officers struggled into tactical gear allowed the riot to gain momentum.

-The province said a day ahead of time that downtown liquor stores would close early, spurring early and heavy alcohol consumption by those looking to beat the cut-off.

-The greatest failure was not any action, but the failure to anticipate such a large crowd, with thousands of drunken young men and hundreds intent on violence.

The report, commissioned by the provincial government, says that mass street celebrations should continue to take place in Vancouver so as to not surrender the streets to "thugs and villains." Mr. Keefe and Mr. Furlong issued 53 far-reaching recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of the June 15 rampage. Among the most important: there should be far greater control of alcohol on public transit, perhaps a ban; and authorities should be ready to shut down public transit to any future trouble spots. Improved co-operation among Vancouver's regional police forces, and a special court to deal with riot-related offences are other key legal recommendations.

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Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu hinted that budgetary concerns were not irrelevant in response to a question on why his policing plan did not call for officers to be deployed in the early afternoon of June 15. "If I had infinite amounts of money, I would deploy officers five hours before I think they're needed, just to be on the safe side. But we don't do that. We have to be responsible with public money," he told reporters.

Chief Chu defended the performance of the VPD, citing the report's statement that no number of police could have prevented the riot. He said he will push for greater regional police co-operation for major events, and will speak to transit officials about cutting the flow of people into downtown for future events. And he stood by his force's investigation into the riot. More than two months after the disturbance, no formal charges have been laid – but Chief Chu asked for patience, vowing that hundreds will be charged.

While largely exonerating Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson of any culpability in the lead-up to the riot, the report recommends that British Columbia end the practice of municipal mayors doubling as the head of their police boards.

Mr. Keefe said the withering police presence in the opening minutes of the riot – as officers scrambled for a half-hour to change into tactical gear – added to the momentum of the disturbance. "To use a sports analogy, they probably felt the referee had put his whistle in his pocket."

Among the report's recommendations is a call for the consideration of beefed-up powers for the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch to "dampen" the sale and distribution of alcohol for regional events. They also suggest TransLink, which funnelled 500 people into the core every 90 seconds by train alone before the riot, to take the lead in developing better practices for intercepting alcohol on its systems.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark homed in on the "drunken rioters" she blamed for all the trouble. "They are the ones who put our sense of safety in our city at risk," she said. "It was those drunken louts who caused this problem."

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Ms. Clark said she was open to suggestions in the report that B.C.'s Attorney-General establish a process or special court for riot-related criminal action.

Police have not said how many officers were on duty on riot night, but the report discloses that 446 police began on duty that day, and reached 928 at full deployment. Mr. Keefe said that number was appropriate, given the smaller crowds that Vancouver police (mistakenly) assumed they would face.

With reports from Vivian Luk, Sunny Dhillon and Robert Matas

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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