HAMILTON, Bermuda, Aug 11, CMC – An eagerly awaited report by an independent body into a clash between police and protesters outside the House of Assembly last December has concluded that officers did not engage in misconduct during the incident.
But the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) report, released on Thursday night, also said the confrontation had left a “scar on Bermuda’s history”.
Police used pepper spray on demonstrators blocking parliament “only when they properly believed that it was necessary”, according to the PCA.
The six-person investigating team found no order was given from higher up to use the spray and the decision to deploy the spray was taken by individual officers, as per “use of force policy”.
The report added the use of pepper spray “could have and should have been avoided”, but for the “precarious position” officers were sent into by their commanders.
The group concluded that the incidents had soured the relationship between the public and the police.
But the PCA report determined that 26 formal objections filed over officers’ handling of demonstrators “cannot be upheld”, although there was “no question that mistakes were made in the BPS (Bermuda Police Service) at senior levels”.
Protesters opposed to the building of a new airport terminal — which has since gone ahead — had earlier blocked the gates to the House to halt the debate of key legislation for the proposal.
The most contentious episode of the day, and the main subject of a separate review by Assistant Chief Constable Chris Shead of the UK’s National Police Co-ordination Centre, was the deployment of helmeted police armed with pepper spray in an attempt to dislodge protesters from the entrances to the grounds of Sessions House, which also includes the Supreme Court.
That review criticised the planning and execution of police tactics.
Thursday’s decision handed down by the PCA began with an affirmation of the right to lawful protest, noting that the demonstration had been “generally considered by those participating … to be a lawful and peaceful assembly”.
Pepper spray was first used when a “bubble” of officers tried to open access to the vehicle gate, and ended up “surrounded by a crowd deemed to be hostile”.
It was used a second time in a bid to retrieve an officer said to be “in danger of injury from certain members of the public making up the crowds”.
Pepper spray falls near the lower end of a use-of-force continuum, the report said, while more physical methods such as batons or tasers are “far more likely” to cause harm.
It also noted that blocking entry to the House contravenes the law and that protesters “had not responded favourably” to earlier attempts to persuade them to move.
Police had initially opted not to remove protesters after being informed at 10 a.m. by Randy Horton, then Speaker of the House, that MPs would not be sitting.
The report said: “However, later in the day, possibly around 12.30 p.m., the Speaker informed commanders that he wished the House to sit that afternoon. By this time there were many more protesters. The commanders ordered their officers to secure access to the House for the parliamentarians. Officers were given orders to get control of the entry gates to the House of Assembly when, with hindsight but as also advised by some at the time, the better course was to do nothing.”
The report was unsparing on the lack of preparation and poor communication that affected the response, adding that senior officers believed that “if a commander had been on site from the beginning” it may have made a difference.
It also described the circumstances that led to the “bubble” tactic being used as “torturous”.
“The Speaker had determined earlier on that Friday that the House would not sit. If it had been decided that the House would sit, the police would have had a relatively easy task of gaining control of the gates from the few protesters that were present early on,” the report noted.
But once the Speaker informed the Commissioner of Police that he wished parliament to proceed, officers mobilised and the tactic, settled upon earlier, was never reconsidered.
The next decision to call off parliament was made some time before 1 p.m. but “did not reach the commanders in time” to stop, and police officers situated among the protesters could no longer be reached by radio, forcing senior officers to shout instructions.
“This was a bad day for Bermuda, the BPS and the protesters, many of whom had only intended to be there to peacefully make known their views,” the report added, saying the struggle had “rekindled memories of darker times”.
While a dozen individuals involved in the protest, including union leaders Jason Hayward — now also a government senator — and Chris Furbert, were charged with offences before the courts, the Director of Public Prosecutions abandoned the prosecution of all but two participants.
Of those two, one received a six-month conditional discharge for striking an officer with an umbrella, while a second was sentenced to a year in prison for repeatedly hitting an officer with a walking stick.
The Speaker, who has since retired from politics, adjourned parliament until February when MPs approved plans to build a new US$302 million airport terminal. Work on the 40-month project got under way in April.
The former One Bermuda Alliance government had announced in late 2014 that it had agreed a 30-year public-private partnership (PPP) deal with the Canadian government through Canadian Commercial Corporation and Aecon, the Canadian contractor, to build the new terminal.