VANCOUVER – Massive crowds had filled downtown streets for every Stanley Cup final game, fans’ expectations were steadily rising and Vancouver had been dealt the blows of dashed-hopes rioting before.
Vivid descriptions of the violent brawl that consumed the city when the Canucks lost the cup in 1994 were set out in a report aimed at preventing a replay should the team make the playoffs ever again.
But a week after similar havoc gripped the city’s downtown among a throng of about 150,000 people, Vancouver’s mayor admitted he didn’t see the writing on the wall.
“Certainly there was discussion about the scenario of a riot and how that would be responded to,” Gregor Robertson told reporters Thursday as he promoted a campaign to help revive downtown businesses that were attacked by looters and window smashers who caused millions of dollars in damage.
“I think what took place would be far beyond what anyone anticipated,” the mayor said.
Robertson acknowledged he didn’t read the prophetic 17-year-old report until he was managing the aftermath of the Canucks’ Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins.
In the report, the B.C. Police Commission said the city shouldn’t encourage large crowds to gather downtown. It also noted a report into a riot in Montreal a year earlier recommended against setting up giant TV screens downtown, although the B.C. report didn’t contain a recommendation on such screens.
But that was the scene on the night of the riot.
The report also noted the policing plan to control crowds in 1994 was deficient, adding “police are better served by overestimating the number of officers they will require, rather than underestimating.”
Yet documents show the force requested $648,000 in funding for policing, a third of what it had asked for last year in anticipation of the Canucks making to the Stanley Cup final then.
“The vast majority of those recommendations, almost all of them, were acted upon many years ago,” Robertson said of the 1994 report, adding policing of crowds in the city has evolved out of the report and those changes were evident when the melee erupted last week.
The designated fan zones had a capacity of 25,000 people, not the estimated 150,000 who showed up downtown, including those in the bars, restaurants and Rogers Arena, Robertson said.
Police Chief Jim Chu did read the report, and Robertson noted that police approved the setup of big-screen TVs along several blocks of the downtown area that was blocked to traffic.
Robertson agreed there weren’t enough officers on the street.
“There are a lot of detailed questions around the police’s deployment and their operations,” he said. “I certainly have those questions now.”
But he proceeded to deflect questions about why decisions around such choices were made. He said he’s waiting for answers from the independent review that’s being funded by the province.
“There were dozens of people who showed up with weapons, explosive devices and the intention to create a riot,” Robertson said.
Robertson denied suggestions that a city manager pressured police to “ratchet back” spending on the playoff run, according to minutes of a council meeting. He said only that council approved the $648,000 budget request.
The 1994 report noted that cost implications make it difficult to deploy more officers.
“But the (police) department should be encouraged by its budget managers to err on the side of prevention,” the report said.
In an email statement sent later Thursday, Vancouver Police addressed the debate over how many officers were deployed.
It said numbers are based on experience and threat assessment, which changes from minute to minute in a riot-type scenario and yet the resources available remain the same.
“Realistically, there is no plausible number of police that could have been deployed that would have prevented this riot,” police said, adding no can predict with 100 per cent certainty if a riot will occur.
“Toronto had many more police, drawn from across the country, on the streets for the G20 and they still had a riot.”
Chu has not released the number of officers who were out last Wednesday. The statement noted the number was “about the same” as were deployed for the gold medal hockey game during the Olympics.
Police will co-operate fully with the review, the statement said.
“We also will take any lessons learned and implement them.”
According to the Downtown Business Improvement Association, the damage and looting is currently estimated at $4 million to $5 million.
About 20 of the 60 vandalized stores were looted, and one store CEO has said the total damage at that one location amounted to $1 million, including $500,000 in stolen merchandise—everything from high-end cameras, computers and cosmetics.
Some store owners found their cars torched, said Downtown Business Improvement Association executive director Charles Gauthier.
Store staff feared for their safety and in one case fended off the mob with fire extinguishers. Another store reported that a Good Samaritan stopped a rioter from tossing a Molotov cocktail.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated the B.C. Police Commission report recommended against setting up large TV screens downtown.