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Five Ottawa community groups are calling for an independent evaluation of the Ottawa Police Service after the arrest of a teenager at a student protest against dress-code rules.
The groups say police aggressively handcuffed and arrested the male student for “no apparent reason” during a student walkout of Béatrice-Desloges high school in Orléans last Friday.
About 400 students were protesting in front of the school because they were upset about a “dress-code blitz” by administrators that included pulling girls into the hallway to check the length of their shorts.
Police said they were controlling traffic in response to two calls from the school and one from a member of the public about safety. Students were standing in front of the school and across the street as cars drove by.
Ottawa Police arrested one male teenager who did not attend the school, who was put into a squad car and later released without charges.
The community groups, in a statement released Tuesday, rejected the assessment by Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell that the police actions at the protest were justified.
“This incident is particularly disturbing following last week’s release of the OPS’ use-of-force race data showing the (Ottawa Police Service) uses force disproportionately on Black, Middle Eastern and Indigenous people,” said the statement from 613-819 Black Hub, Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, Asilu Collective, Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition and Horizon Ottawa.
“If this is the way they treat a white kid when people are watching we’re very concerned about what they’re doing to Black, Middle Eastern and Indigenous people when no one’s around,” said a statement from Robin Browne, co-lead of the 613-819 Black Hub.
The groups are asking the city to launch “independent, human rights-based reviews” of the Ottawa Police Service, the Ottawa Police Services Board and Crime Prevention Ottawa.
“The OPS response to this student protest has further eroded what little public trust there was in the OPS,” said the statement.
The community groups compared police action at the student protest with the trucker convoy occupation of downtown Ottawa last winter and the “Rolling Thunder” protest two weeks ago month.
Bell made clear during the “Rolling Thunder” protest that police protect the right to lawful and peaceful demonstrations, said the statement from the community groups.
“Clearly, the OPS only protects the right to protest for some but not others,” said the statement.
Over the weekend Bell provided an explanation to the Ottawa police services board of what happened at Béatrice-Desloges during the student dress-code protest.
Police were trying to prevent students from crossing the street as cars drove by at a high rate of speed, he said.
“Officers attempted on multiple occasions to deescalate and calm the situation, however, in some cases they were unsuccessful,” Bell said.
“The challenges the officers faced were from youths who did not attend the school and who were repeatedly crossing the roadway to the protest and agitating the crowd.”
Bell said two teenage males were walking back and forth across the street and they were asked repeatedly to stop crossing the street and obstructing traffic.
“At one point a large number of students flooded the roadway following one of these youths across the road. The officers feared that this could escalate to injury and increase public safety risk,” Bell said in his email.
Videos posted on social media show teenagers arguing with police and swearing. One of the protesters arguing with police as the teenager was arrested was wearing a horse-head costume.
“An officer was approached by a school staff member who advised the two youths were not students at the school and were not allowed on the property,” said the explanation from Bell. “The two youths were advised by the officer at least five times they were not to attend the property and had to remain off the roadway on the opposite side of the road.”
Bell said his review found the police acted appropriately.
“Officers are required to respond to these types of calls where the safety of youths, or other members of the public, is at risk. Once on scene officers took appropriate actions to keep people safe, blocking roads and attempting to keep students and other youths off the roadway.”
In their statement, the community groups are also critical of Eli El-Chantiry, the head of the police board.
El-Chantiry told this newspaper that police had little choice but to arrest the teenager after he ignored warnings.
El-Chantiry said Acting Deputy Chief Paul Burnett is reviewing the call and will provide an assessment to the board.
Some politicians have taken to social media to question police actions during the protest, including Coun. Jeff Leiper, who is on the police board.Leiper tweeted Friday that that he had “spoken with police to express my disagreement with physically taking control of the youth even if trespassing. I don’t immediately see the need to have escalated the situation.”Coun. Catherine McKenney tweeted that the police, school and school board response to a peaceful student protest “put students at risk.”
with files from Jon Willing