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OPP brass sacrificing safety: Officers

Susan Clairmont
Hamilton Spectator
(Jun 8, 2006)

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

OPP officers assigned to the native standoff in Caledonia say their bosses have put their public image ahead of officer safety and law and order.

Talking for the first time since the volatile land occupation began 100 days ago, the president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association says a meeting is being held tonight in Caledonia. So the association can hear concerns of officers who have been told not to wear riot gear or tactical uniforms when dealing with native protesters. Officers say they are being sent out without proper back-up and are left wondering if commanding officers and the courts will back them up when they try to enforce the law.

"Due to the political pressures and optics involved with this, the OPP seems to be bending their own rules, while sacrificing officer safety," Karl Walsh says. "Optics don't have any place on the front lines at Caledonia."

The OPP have had a fluctuating presence at the protest since natives began occupying a housing development they claim is being built on their land. At some points, only a single OPP officer was watching the natives from a parked cruiser. At other times, lines of officers have stood between natives and Caledonia residents, as tempers flared.

Front line officers feel they haven't had a strong enough presence at the barricades, and not having enough officers makes it dangerous on the front line.

The "deviation from the usual training and standards" of the OPP "has been an underlying concern from the get-go" in Caledonia, says Walsh.

So far, 13 officers have been injured while assigned to the stand-off.

Some of those injuries may have been avoided if officers had been allowed to follow the training, policies and procedures they have always abided by.

For instance, the highly-trained and heavily-armed members of the OPP tactical team have not been allowed to wear their tactical uniforms.

"It's OK to have an officer walking around in tactical uniform at Wasaga Beach on a long weekend, but it's not OK in Caledonia," Walsh says.

And the standard practice for OPP officers dealing with an unruly crowd -- as both the protesters and the townsfolk have sometimes been during the past months -- is to dress in "public order gear." That's the politically correct term for riot gear, consisting of helmets, visors and shields.

"But these officers were ordered not to wear them for optical purposes," according to Walsh. The OPP doesn't want to give the media, the protesters or the residents of Caledonia the impression "there's an increased level of aggressiveness" in what they consistently have called a "peaceful" operation.

In fact, that is Constable Paula Wright's response when asked to respond to the concerns raised by Walsh and front-line officers.

The Haldimand detachment media officer repeatedly says that "our role is to keep the peace and ensure public safety."

Wright would not talk about police gear or uniforms, saying those are "operational matters" that will not be discussed publicly because to do so could -- ironically -- jeopardize officer safety.

It has been a long 100 days for the OPP officers on the ground in Caledonia. Some, like those from the local detachments and members of the specially-trained OPP Aboriginal Response Team who were deployed as negotiators, have been there from the beginning.

Others are rotated in every seven days from across the province.

It was two of those officers, who having just arrived from out-of-town on Sunday, found their cruiser surrounded by angry natives that night after they mistakenly turned down the Sixth Line, a road that was a mutually agreed upon "no-go zone" for the OPP.

"They got surrounded and there were a lot of upset people at the time. It was a faction within the protest area that's determined not to deal with things in a rational manner. It was a simple mistake," says Walsh.

The officers apologized to the crowd of 40 people and said they would leave.

They weren't allowed to and the cruiser was damaged.

Six Nations Police officers arrived and, according to Walsh, issued trespassing tickets to the officers under The Indian Act. Six Nations Police could not be reached for comment.

There have been very few charges laid by the OPP against native protesters since this began. The charges they have laid have been largely ignored. Those arrested have refused to acknowledge the court system, saying it doesn't apply to them.

"That is a two-tiered justice system," Walsh says.

So -- does the Ontario Provincial Police have any power?

Are they going to be allowed to do their job and uphold the law?

Those questions are expected to come up at tonight's meeting.

Officers feel they are powerless and have, in some cases, been left to fend for themselves without the backing of the OPP or the judicial system.

Walsh won't say when or where tonight's meeting is taking place, because it is not open to the public. And Walsh himself won't be there.

Instead, he will be at a meeting of the Canadian Professional Police Officers Association in Ottawa, to which he is also bringing the Caledonia concerns. He hopes the national association will put pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to step in and deal with the land occupation. He takes issue with comments Harper has made publicly that Caledonia is ultimately a provincial law enforcement issue.

"This is clearly a federal issue," counters Walsh. "Our officers are the ones who are stuck in the middle of this ...We want our officers back in their communities. We want them to go home to their families safe and sound."

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