Ottawa·Analysis

Peter Sloly takes the hit for loss of public trust in Ottawa police

Many have questioned Peter Sloly’s ability to end the downtown occupation and Tuesday he took the fall for this loss of trust in police. Whether that’s fair is almost beside the point at the moment.

Can the blame be laid at one man’s feet? It almost doesn’t matter

Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly, right, steps back to allow Deputy Chief Steve Bell to answer a question at a news conference Feb. 4, 2022. Sloly resigned as Ottawa's chief of police a little more than two years into his mandate in the face of criticism over his handling of the ongoing protest. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As darkness fell in the late afternoon last Wednesday, dozens of armed officers gathered in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel at Coventry Road.

Outside, two long charter buses stood idling, presumably there to transport any protesters who didn't leave the supply camp they had set up in the baseball stadium parking lot almost two weeks earlier.

That a raid seemed imminent was hardly a surprise. Days earlier, dozens of heavily armed officers descended dramatically on the encampment, confiscating a tanker of fuel.

The operation appeared to go smoothly, without any reported injuries, and had the dual effect of seeming to deflate the morale of protesters while boosting that of residents looking for action from authorities.

This Wednesday evening raid was surely the sign of the next shoe to drop.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, as protesters looked on somewhat perplexed, the officers climbed into those waiting buses, which drove through the parking lot and off the site. 

A view of the Coventry Road staging area the afternoon of Feb. 9, 2022. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

According to multiple CBC sources, that raid and another the next day were cancelled because of significant internal disagreements among policing leaders on the best way to proceed with the operations.

Even though plans were in place, and officers stood at the ready, sources said senior leadership could not reach a consensus.

Second-guessing policing strategy has become a national pastime. But it doesn't take a tactical expert to observe that whatever local police are doing since the protest began in earnest Jan. 28 hasn't worked to end the surreal and ongoing truck occupation of the national capital's downtown.

Missteps began from Day 1

On the first weekend of the demonstration, as the numbers of protesters began to swell into the thousands and vehicles settled into place on downtown streets, police put out a call for 25 officers to work overtime two days in a row, sources said.

Multiple officers told CBC they were puzzled why staffing wasn't shored up prior to the unofficial first day of the protest.

Issues continued, from not initially barring trucks from the downtown, to allowing them to set up camp at the stadium parking lot, to seemingly being unable — or, as some have charged, unwilling — to prevent harassment of downtown residents, businesses and services.

WATCH | The many challenges that remain, even with new powers:

The complex challenge of ending the protests in Ottawa

5 months ago
Duration 3:02
The federal Emergencies Act gives authorities more power to break up the Ottawa protest, but removing the trucks and protesters will be a complex, time-consuming and potentially dangerous process.

It's obvious that mistakes were made and police have already conceded that fact.

But can everything that has gone wrong be laid at the feet of one man? That's a very different question.

Pressure from outside, inside the force

On Tuesday, Peter Sloly stepped down as chief of the Ottawa Police Service in the face of overwhelming criticism over how the local force has handled the demonstration.

In particular, the public is furious that police appear to not be enforcing laws and the more stringent rules put in place to keep the protest in check.

That includes everything from not stopping individuals bringing fuel cans to parked trucks in the parliamentary district — after a tough-talking news release said those people would be arrested — to allowing loud dance parties to continue into the wee hours on weekend nights.

WATCH | Chair of Ottawa police board criticizes response:

Chair of Ottawa police board criticizes response to ‘carnival of chaos’ downtown

5 months ago
Duration 1:04
Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, criticized the Ottawa Police Service for failing to quell the ongoing protests despite having weeks to put together an enforcement plan.

    The pressure for Sloly to step down came from inside the force as well.

    According to a CBC exclusive story, sources have accused Sloly of bullying and volatile behaviour that damaged relations with senior leadership and compromised the force's ability to cope with the truck protest.

    The former chief allegedly belittled and berated senior officers in front of their colleagues, failed to share a solid operations plan to end the crisis and even came into conflict with members of the Ontario Provincial Police and RCMP who were sent to Ottawa to help.

    When asked to comment on the allegations against Sloly, the response provided to CBC News did not deny the accusations. 

    The police leadership team has repeatedly said the local force has been overwhelmed by the highly organized protesters and officers have been working to keep a lid on any widespread violence — which they have accomplished, more or less

    Early last week, Ottawa's leaders asked for as many as 1,800 additional police officers and other staff before the third weekend of the protests, but they only received a fraction of that ask.

    Criticism soon after he took job

    Add to these multiple moving parts, the fact that some opposition to Sloly started soon after he was named the police service's first Black chief with a mandate to change the internal culture of the force.

    Sloly found himself the subject of a meme that compared him to Hitler and was openly criticized for stating that systemic racism existed in all police forces, including his own.

    The former chief is suing a local magazine for defamation for calling him corrupt, incompetent, stupid and a liar, and has found hateful anonymous notes on his windshield.

    Retiring chief of the Ottawa Police Service Charles Bordeleau, right, hands over the ceremonial Tipp Staff to then-new chief Peter Sloly during a change of commond ceremony in Ottawa Nov. 26, 2019. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

    Last October, Sloly told CBC that "there's rot in the organization that's going to come to light. It's not going to look good but have confidence that we're actually doing that work, the heavy, difficult and necessary work of ridding the organization literally of cancer."

    Instead, it is Sloly who's left the organization.

    The African Canadian Association of Ottawa wrote to police board members Tuesday to say they were "appalled" by Sloly's resignation, referring to a "clandestine movement" to undermine his leadership and believe that Sloly is a scapegoat for all that's gone wrong with the protest.

    WATCH | Some of the reaction from Black activists, experts:

    Peter Sloly's resignation as Ottawa police chief comes as critics denounce handling of convoy protests

    5 months ago
    Duration 8:41
    Canada Tonight's Ginella Massa spoke with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, University of Toronto professor whose work examines the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice with a focus on policing, and Vanessa Dorimain co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, about Peter Sloly's resignation as Ottawa police chief.

    So was Sloly a tyrant, or a target? Is the local force incompetent or has it not been adequately supported?

    It's probably not an either-or situation.

    This protest is the most complex and fraught civil action this city has ever seen and there's likely a lot of blame to go around for how it all went down.

    Right now, it almost doesn't matter. The city has lost its collective trust in the police force to end the occupation and to protect downtown residents during raucous and lawless weekends. The person who wears that is the person in charge.

    "At the top of any organization, whether you're the mayor, the chair, the chief, the president of a company, you get all of the good and all of the bad," Mayor Jim Watson told CBC when asked if Sloly was indeed a scapegoat.

    "And at the end of the day, the final shots are made by the chief."

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Joanne Chianello

    City affairs analyst

    Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

    With files from Shaamini Yogaretnam

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