A senior Ottawa officer told the Emergencies Act inquiry Tuesday that police had tow trucks at the ready before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act and would have moved on protesters with or without the new powers.
Supt. Robert Bernier, who oversaw the Ottawa police command centre for a portion of the “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations in February, said he would have carried out a preplanned police operation even if the law had not been invoked.
He also said he didn’t need the federal government to compel truck drivers to remove vehicles that were entrenched in the downtown core, because police had already assembled 34 tow trucks with willing drivers.
But Bernier also told the commission during an interview that the emergency declaration may have convinced protesters to stay away from downtown Ottawa and be more compliant with police.
During the convoy Ottawa police said one of their limitations to bring the protests to an end was an unwillingness of tow truck drivers to help move hundreds of vehicles blocking the streets around Parliament Hill.
The Emergencies Act, which was invoked Feb. 14, granted temporary and extraordinary powers to police and governments to end the demonstrations. That included allowing police and city officials to commandeer tow trucks to move big rigs and other vehicles, if the towing operators still refused.
Bernier is the latest police witness to testify about their experience during nearly three weeks in late January and early February.
The “Freedom Convoy” was a name coined by some of the demonstrators, who were massing in Ottawa to demand an end to all COVID-19 restrictions. Some in the various groups also wanted the Liberal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thrown out of office, while others carried signs demanding Trudeau be tried for treason.
Previous officers testified there was a lack of informed intelligence and dysfunction in the ranks of Ottawa police from the early days of the protest.
Bernier said that he was told “not to worry,” after raising concerns over what he called a bizarre disconnect between intelligence reports warning about the “Freedom Convoy” and the plans to deal with it.
Bernier told another senior officer there could be “serious disruptions” but was told police had contact with the protest organizers, who were compliant and planning to leave after one weekend, according to a written summary submitted to the Public Order Emergency Commission.
Ottawa Police Service Insp. Russell Lucas said earlier on Tuesday that while he felt the first few days of the “Freedom Convoy” were managed well, police missed an opportunity to shrink the area of the protest when crowds thinned out after the first weekend.
Lucas, who was an incident commander during the convoy, said he was shocked by how many vehicles arrived and said police were overwhelmed trying to control them.
He said close to 5,000 vehicles tried entering Ottawa on Jan. 29, the first major day of demonstrations, and that many were stopped travelling from Quebec.
He also said police only had a week to prepare for the protest, comparing it to his experience planning for the 2016 North American Leaders Summit in Ottawa, which he said unfolded over months.
Lucas’s statements come after testimony from other senior Ottawa officers painted a picture of police struggling to gather intelligence and plan for the event, and lacking both resources and a contingency plan in the event protesters did not leave.
Interim chief Steve Bell said Monday the police expected the protesters to be peaceful and leave after three days but that’s not what happened. He said the police did not properly prepare for the effect the protests would have on local residents, including violence.
But the commission has also heard that a local hotel association warned police ahead of the convoy’s arrival that protesters were booking rooms for 30 days.
And intelligence prepared by Ontario Provincial Police and submitted as evidence as part of the inquiry flagged the “Freedom Convoy” was deemed “high risk” for traffic disruptions and illegal activity.
Some Ottawa police officers have said those reports were not seen by senior officers in Ottawa until after the protest already descended on the city.
Confusion over what police knew and whether they were communicating has extended beyond the commission.
In a March meeting of the House of Commons public safety committee, OPP commissioner Thomas Carrique said his intelligence unit identified the Freedom Convoy on Feb. 7 as a “threat to national security.”
But the head of the OPP intelligence unit, Supt. Pat Morris, has now told the public inquiry there was never any “credible” information showing there was a national security threat.
On Monday, MPs on the public safety committee voted unanimously to seek a response from the OPP about those conflicting statements.