The eyes of the police amid downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Cup crowds rarely stop moving. The cops scan constantly for the warning signs of trouble.
“You’re always looking for whether or not a particular behaviour has escalated,” said Vancouver police Const. Andrew Prebushewski of the crowd-control unit, at the CBC plaza screen-viewing area downtown Friday night. “People start getting into wrestling, or climbing — that very quickly escalates.”
Specific actions and postures in crowds draw police attention.
“You’re looking for these swaggering, bullying behaviours . . . people being aggressive,” said Peter Ditchfield, a retired officer who was a founding member of the Vancouver police crowd-control unit and played a controversial role during the 1994 Cup riot in the city. “Quite often there are indications of intoxication.”
An act of vandalism may create a flashpoint in a crowd, Ditchfield said. “When people start to damage cars or kick in windows, these are things that should be jumped on straight away.”
Should rioting occur, a primary task for police is separation of actual rioters from others in the crowd, Ditchfield said.
“When a crowd becomes unruly there are usually very, very few people who are instigators and a few more who will be egged on by these people, a whole bunch of people who are onlookers and are intrigued by what’s going on, and people who just want no part of it.”
Removing instigators quickly from the scene can defuse the situation, he said.
The 1994 riot that followed the Canucks’ Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers occurred in part because of a lack of “proactive” policing, said Ditchfield, whose decision during the riot to allow use of an Arwen rubber-bullet gun — which caused a serious head injury to Stacy Ryan Berntt — was vindicated in B.C. Supreme Court.
“If there had been more of a police presence on the street in a proactive fashion it might’ve gone differently . . . if people had been taken out of it before they were allowed to riot,” he said. “It was a full-blown riot before the crowd-control unit were deployed.”
While it’s crucial to have enough cops to handle a riot, police commanders walk a narrow line in deploying forces, Ditchfield said.
“If you deploy the crowd-control unit, you are essentially showing the hard face of policing. That in certain situations can be provocative. You have your resources in place for a worst-case scenario, but you wouldn’t deploy all those resources until it was apparent that things were going awry.”
When Ditchfield gives crowd-control seminars to police recruits at the Justice Institute of B.C., he lets his pupils know they’ll be held accountable for their actions in a riot.
“In this day and age you need to know that all these situations will be picked over after the event, and you should be aware that your behaviour is being monitored at all times,” he said. “If you don’t feel adrenaline, there’s something wrong with you. Your training and experience will take over and make you behave in an appropriate fashion.”