Hamilton police criticized for alleged use of 'excessive force' during encampment clearings
A Hamilton Police officer is seen in this undated photo. (Twitter/@HamiltonPolice)
TORONTO -- Advocates and politicians alike are speaking out against alleged excessive use of force by the Hamilton Police Service (HPS) during encampment clearings at two local parks last week.
On Nov 24., just before 6:00 a.m., Hamilton Police Service (HPS) attended J.C. Beemer Park for reports of a fire within an encampment at 68 Victoria Avenue North.
According to a statement issued Wednesday by HPS, the fire destroyed multiple tents but no injuries were reported.
Conditions at the park were then deemed to be “unsafe” by the city and they began to clear the encampment. At that time, they were met by “25-30 individuals," comprised mainly of members and supporters of The Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN), protesting the clearing.
As a result of the demonstration, officers arrested a 33-year-old man for allegedly obstructing police and a 27-year-old woman for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
Two days later, on Nov. 26, Hamilton police officers arrested Sarah Jama, co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario and supporter of Hamilton Encampment Support Network, during an encampment clearing at Beasley Park in Hamilton, leading HESN supporters to hold a demonstration outside of Hamilton Police Services Central Station.
At that demonstration, HPS officers arrested three additional individuals. These arrests included a 27-year-old woman, a 20-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman — all residents of Hamilton.
The Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion uploaded footage of the latter three arrests on their Twitter account later that day.
‘EXCESSIVE FORCE’ QUESTIONED
Community members, advocates and politicians have since spoken out against the conduct of Hamilton Police Service during the arrests, with many claiming that “excessive force” was used.
An image of the incident, released by HESN, appears to depict an individual on the ground with a police officer’s knee on their neck.
When asked about the image, Hamilton Police Service told CTV News Toronto that “the photo depicts officers attempting to gain control and execute an arrest in a dynamic situation.”
“A shoulder pin may be used to affect an arrest and is taught at the Ontario Police College,” a spokesperson for HPS said. “This is what was used in this instance.”
Hamilton City Councillor for Ward 3, Nrinder Nann said that footage of the arrests show excessive force was used and called the incident “very troubling.”
“Last year, stats showed disproportionate use against Black residents in [Hamilton],” Nann wrote on Twitter. “This is counter to the city’s Safety & Wellbeing Plan and breaks trust. It is not enough to say systemic racism exists.”
MP for Hamilton Centre, Matthew Green, released a joint statement with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic saying they echo Nann’s comments and stand in solidarity with those in the community exercising their right to peaceful protests.
“Peaceful protest is a hallmark of a free and democratic society,” the statement read. “We call upon the Hamilton Police Service to exercise proper restraint, de-escalate community tension and ensure that those engaged in peaceful demonstrations can exercise that right.”
HAMILTON POLICE STATEMENT
On Nov. 27, Hamilton Police released a video of Chief Frank Bergen delivering a statement on the incident and subsequent arrests.
“Hamilton Police believe in the fundamental right to peaceful protest and have facilitated countless demonstrations with individuals exercising those rights,” the statement began.
Bergen said that the protest at J.C. Beemer Park was not of peaceful nature.
“What took place was not a peaceful protest,” he said. “At one point during the demonstration, protesters broke through the perimeter and compromised the area established for the safety of workers cleaning the area, encampment residents, city staff and outreach workers.”
Additionally, Bergen underlined that a balance between activism and lawfulness must be struck.
“We fundamentally agree that community support and demonstrations must not be criminalized,” he said. “There is a fine balance in the need to allow for community activism, while also maintaining demonstrations that meet the threshold for peaceful lawful and safe assembly.”
Following a press conference held by HESN on Monday, police say they were made aware of “allegations regarding injuries during the arrests of those involved in the protest at J.C. Beemer Park.”
“As such, we notified the [Special Investigations Unit (SIU)] for further investigation and they have now invoked their mandate,” a spokesperson for HPS said.
HPS said they would not provide further comment while the SIU conducts its investigation.
The Toronto Coalition for Housing (TorCH) has planned a press conference in front of Old City Hall from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Tuesday to address the latest incident in conjunction with previous encampment clearings that took place in Toronto last summer.
Moreover, a GoFundMe has been created for those arrested in an effort “to help cover the prohibitive legal costs incurred.”
At the time of publication, just under $12,500 had been raised of the $20,000 goal.