“When you go up to a crowd with a shield, things can get violent quick.”
Jocelyn Moisan- The Canadian Tactical Training Academy
So says a veteran instructor of crowd control tactics who has trained police forces in more than 20 countries.
“The idea is to break the problem right away and disperse the crowd,” said Jocelyn Moisan, president of the Canadian Tactical Training Academy, based right here in Montreal.
“When you go up to a crowd with a shield, things can get violent quick. You want to avoid that. So it’s better to use flashbangs and stop the process than make a lot of arrests. It avoids the escalation of violence.”
When Montreal riot police threw a flashbang at student protesters on Wednesday, which seriously injured the eye of student Francis Grenier, it was meant to destabilize the crowd blocking the entrance to the Loto-Québec building on Sherbrooke St., police brass said.
“It was a defensive manoeuvre that let us move on to our second action, which was to remove the barricade and advance,” chief inspector Alain Bourdage said.
What triggers a riot squad to deploy forceful tactics is a science in principle but not so much in practice, police trainers say. Every police force has its own guidelines for responding to incidents, but crowd control, at least in Canada, usually follows a logic: break it up before it snowballs into something more violent.
“When (protesters) do stupid stuff it can get ugly very fast,” Moisan said, like pushing an officer or throwing a heavy object.
“It really depends on the prevailing circumstances that can change in a heartbeat,” wrote Steve Watt, president of CMLS Global, a police training firm in Vancouver. “It may be easy to armchair-quarterback these incidents, but not so easy when you are in the middle of one and making decisions on the spot.”
Montreal cops follow a force continuum established by the provincial police school in Nicolet. If a group doesn’t respond to verbal warnings and show “active resistance” by pushing or throwing objects at regular officers, the riot squad is deployed, Bourdage said.
Their first strategy is to order an evacuation. The flashbang was thrown because protesters kept throwing things, he added.
Student leaders, however, were at a loss. When police moved in to disperse the students, they claim they were doing nothing wrong.
“This police intervention happened particularly fast and was particularly aggressive. The demonstration was calm, there was no material damage and no one had gotten hurt,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for student group Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante said.
In the dozens of marches he took part in, things got ugly when the riot squad approached the demonstrators.
“In student protests, when the police keep a certain distance and respect the demonstrators, things go well. But when they get close, it’s when things go bad. It’s what happened yesterday,” he said.
Francis Dupuis-Déri, a professor of political science at UQAM, believes police don’t respond to specific actions, but to the perceived status of demonstrators. In his study of police clashes in Quebec, he noticed that riot cops are harsher with students and extreme leftists than with unionized workers.
“Police see them as second-class citizens. They’re considered troublemakers, and the repression happens much faster,” Dupuis-Déri said.
Moisan said this doesn’t surprise him. Security workers, he said, adapt their strategy to the perceived danger of the crowd.
“They’re supposed to be neutral in every case, but are they always? It’s hard to tell. If they know a group has a bad reputation, they’ll be stricter. They know some people have the tendency to go further in their actions. So they’ll jump in faster,” he said.
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