Expect more arrests during political protests, police chief says

Law enforcement gave too much freedom to protesters during COVID-19 demonstrations, says Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld

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Calgarians can expect the number of charges filed during political street protests to increase over the next year, the city’s police chief said.

And police say large weekly demonstrations that have often drawn more than 2,000 people cost $30,000 each time to patrol, a task performed by up to 120 officers.

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“Many of their frontline members who would otherwise be in districts are people reassigned on their days off,” Chief Mark Neufeld said.

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“There will definitely be an impact on overtime (costs) and calling on members to police the protest…we can’t just pull all resources away from the districts because that means a degradation of services for Calgarians “.

Those officers, he said, appear destined to make more arrests and file more charges during intense demonstrations in which two opposing sides typically clash.

“We will likely see more charges… as the protest environment continues to evolve and groups continue to push boundaries. “We will see more arrests and more certainty in terms of court decisions about what is allowed and what is not,” Neufeld said.

“With so much going on in the world and so many people exercising their right to protest, I don’t see this stopping anytime soon.”

Demonstrations linked to the war between Israel and Hamas that has devastated the Gaza Strip have been a weekly reality in downtown and downtown Calgary for more than two months.

Israel and the United States say they expect the conflict to continue indefinitely, and pro-Palestinian protesters vow to take to the streets as the killings continue, while pressuring politicians to back a ceasefire.

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Police have made several arrests as a result of protest activities, including a hate-related riot charge against pro-Palestinian activist Wesam Cooley, who chanted what was alleged to have been a hate message.

Protesters called the charge misguided and he was subsequently suspended.

Neufeld said he expects more charges to be filed because protesters – particularly splinter groups from the main body of protesters – appear more willing to engage in “direct action” that disrupts infrastructure, such as roads or government buildings.

The arrests were made last month after a dissident group of pro-Palestinian protesters blocked traffic downtown.

“The protest environment has increased in both frequency and complexity,” he said.

Wesam Cooley Israel Hamas protests against war
Wesam Cooley, who also goes by the name Wesam Khaled, addresses a pro-Palestinian rally in Calgary on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. The Crown dropped criminal charges brought against him for saying a controversial phrase at an earlier rally. Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

Lessons learned from COVID-19 pandemic-era protests, police chief says

Neufeld said city police learned lessons from the pandemic-inspired protests, whose participants marched through downtown and midtown streets for months and then clashed with counterprotesters, a fact that added to their already volatile nature. the difficulty of monitoring them.

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One of the lessons, he said, was that Calgary police gave protesters too much freedom.

“We were leaning too much into facilitating people’s rights and not taking into account community impacts, and that’s something we’ve changed in our approach,” Neufeld said.

Earlier this month, Neufeld publicly urged pro-Palestinian activists to refrain from protesting at Tomkins Park on 17th Avenue SW, arguing that the Municipal Plaza site is more spacious and warrants less disruption.

However, protesters have moved their actions to the park, saying they are more visible and interactive there.

Neufeld said that, so far, those demonstrations haven’t resulted in anything “too bad.”

Pro-Palestinian activist Cooley said he is concerned about Neufeld’s prediction of more arrests.

“It is completely inappropriate for the police chief to comment preemptively,” Cooley said. “Our protests are legal, peaceful, welcoming and we have been cooperating with the police.”

He said his arrest for his “from the river to the sea” comment was outrageous, especially considering that no charges were filed when counterprotesters used people dressed as Arab militants to act out rape scenarios at a downtown demonstration.

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“It’s what could only be described as rape theater, and this was done in front of the police and there were no arrests,” Cooley said.

“There would have been no chance of the police intervening if we had done something like that.”

“We definitely feel that there is an Arabophobic and anti-Palestinian bias that governs our institutions that do not value Arab life, and neither does the Calgary police,” he said.

The Muslim community, he said, was led to believe that police would not bring mounted units to their demonstration, but they were present during two December protests, Cooley said.

Neufeld rejected any notion of police bias against pro-Palestinian activists.

“We are not politicians, we are not on anyone’s side, the police try not to take sides,” he said.

“We want to have safe and legal demonstrations for everyone, but we are entering into a conflict about this: we will intervene when necessary and I can guarantee that it will not be popular.”

Although the federal Liberal government has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Cooley said its protests will continue in opposition to Canada’s support for Israel and arms sales to that country.

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