Hamilton

Pride report reveals 'frightening' issues with Hamilton police, says Mac expert on hate groups

The recommendations in an independent review of Hamilton Police Service's conduct at the 2019 Pride festival don't go far enough to address what seems to be deep cultural issues with the service, says a McMaster University expert.

On Thursday, Hamilton's police services board will look at two wildly different reports

Several people were injured in violence that broke out at a 2019 Pride festival. On Thursday, Hamilton's police services board will look at two wildly different reports. (Imgur)

The recommendations in an independent review of Hamilton Police Service's conduct at the 2019 Pride festival don't go far enough to address "deep cultural" issues with the service, says a McMaster University expert.

Tina Fetner, a sociologist who specializes in right wing activism and LGBTQ politics, says an independent review by Toronto lawyer Scott Bergman uncovered weaknesses in the way HPS serves queer and trans residents.

Some of those weaknesses, she says, are "frightening."

The report reveals that police knew religious protesters appeared at the festival in 2018, she said, and could appear again with more aggressive groups like the yellow vests and the Proud Boys. Bergman's report says that happened, but police didn't plan for it.

"This report reveals to me a deep cultural problem in the Hamilton police department, and a deep organizational problem in the function of the police," Fetner said. "I'm not hopeful that small reforms will resolve the problems."

Tina Fetner, a sociologist at McMaster University, studies far-right extremism. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Neither Chief Eric Girt nor Mayor Fred Eisenberger, chair of the police services board, are speaking on the subject yet. Bergman and Girt will answer media questions Thursday after Bergman presents his report at 1 p.m.

The board hired Bergman last year to do an independent review of HPS's response at Pride. The report will cost as much as $600,000.

Bergman investigated the incident at the June 15, 2019 festival in Gage Park, where religious protesters bearing homophobic signs and a loud speaker arrived, along with protesters in yellow vests. ("The Agitators," Bergman calls them in his report.) 

A group of people wearing pink masks — at least some associated with the anarchist social space The Tower — used a large black curtain to block the protesters from view. Bergman's report refers to them as "Pride Defenders."

Violence broke out and several people were injured.

All along, says local writer Autumn Getty, there has been "a failure to admit that something happened that shouldn't have happened." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Bergman found there was confusion around whether Pride organizers wanted uniformed officers there. Organizers didn't hire special duty officers, but did hire five security guards. That day, HPS stationed two plain-clothed officers inside the festival and four uniformed ones on the outskirts.

But Bergman's report says the police plan lacked basic details, such as a map of Gage Park, information about where the protesters had appeared in 2018 and contact info for the festival organizers. The report also said a police officer called a festival organizer two days before the event, and they spoke for 12 minutes.

Bergman's report also said police seemed more concerned with the people in pink masks than they were with the initial protesters. 

"HPS officers and senior command view the yellow vest and far-right demonstrators as far more reasonable and easier to reason with than the anarchists and other counter demonstrators," the report says.

"As a result, police tend to speak more directly with those on the far right and this engenders a sense of biased policing from those on the left. The HPS holds the view that this anarchist group seeks to create rifts in the relationship between police and the community."

Slow moving

Bergman spent months interviewing police, Pride attendees and members of the LGBTQ community, including LGBTQ police officers. Some LGBTQ respondents weren't happy with the pink mask group, saying festival attendees could take care of themselves, the report said. Some weren't happy with the connection to the widely-condemned vandalism spree on Locke Street in 2018. But nearly all said the relationship with police was damaged.

Fetner said the report reveals a near "obsession" with the people in pink masks as opposed to the ones protesting Pride.

"They seemed to be laser targeted on the Tower and anarchists and their concern that the Pride defenders were the same people."

Cam Galindo, an upper Stoney Creek resident and school board trustee, was at the festival. He says Bergman's report was validating, but he's not optimistic there will be changes right away. Police services, he said, tend to be "slow-moving beasts."

Protests across North America following the death of George Floyd show there's a "broader societal change" happening, he said. And maybe this is part of that.

"Time and time again, we are constantly hearing excuses," he said. "We're hearing defensiveness … Now is the time for action, no more excuses, and I think this report helps."

Autumn Getty, who was also at the festival, said some details in the report seem inaccurate, but "the general outline is correct."

Separate from another report on the agenda

All along, she said, there has been "a failure to admit that something happened that shouldn't have happened."

Bergman's report is separate from an internal investigation done in response to three complaints to the Office Of Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) last year. That report said police prepared a proper operational plan, and the OIPRD closed the file.

"This investigation has discovered that the policies and procedures were followed in this instance and that there were no identified issues," said the report, written by Det.-Sgt. Gary Heron.

That report is on the agenda for Thursday too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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