Toronto police hit with formal complaint over violent homeless clearance as Tory asks: ‘Who started it?’

At least one Toronto resident has filed a complaint to Ontario's police watchdog as a group of city councillors are calling for an end to what one described as the "unacceptable" use of "excessive" police force at Lamport Stadium earlier this week.

"There is absolutely no need for batons, pepper spray or even guns, not when the work should be done by the City's Streets to Home staff and other outreach workers," said a letter to Mayor John Tory signed by left-leaning city councillors Shelley Carroll, Mike Layton, Josh Matlow, Gord Perks and Kristyn Wong-Tam.

The letter comes two days after more than two-dozen protesters were arrested at the city-ordered clearing of a homeless encampment beside Lamport Stadium, the scene of violence Wednesday as police were ordered to clear the park of protestors who'd built barricades around remaining tents.

Matlow separately called the police actions an "unacceptable use of excessive force."

Photos and videos of the melee captured officers shoving protestors to the ground, some drawing their batons as they approached people, at least one deploying pepper spray, and police dragging two women on the ground. Toronto police have said the force was used as "a last resort," that objects were thrown at officers, some of whom were sprayed with an unknown noxious substance. Three officers were injured, police said.
A Toronto police officer raises his baton while grabbing Ollie D'Agostino during the clearance near Lamport Stadium Wednesday.

Toronto police and Tory — who sits on the civilian police board — have defended the officers' actions as necessary to deal with what Toronto police called a "confrontational and hostile" crowd that was told to leave and warned about trespass notices.

"It happened so fast," said Jayme Carter, who is the subject of a widely shared image from the Lamport clearing captured by photographer Chris Young for the Canadian Press. The photograph shows a uniformed officer holding a person's neck in their black-gloved hand.

Many of those injured in the clash — and others outraged by the show of force — are now seeking accountability. "I would support any investigation that would try to give real, I guess, accountability to what happened on Wednesday, because it was outrageous," said Ollie D'Agostino, who suffered a wrist injury and was pictured in a photo by freelance photographer Nick Lachance. In it, an officer can be seen raising a baton while holding down or grabbing D'Agostino by the head.

Whether any external investigation will take place is still to be determined. As of Friday, at least one formal complaint had been filed with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), the complaints watchdog confirmed to the Star.

Asked why she lodged the complaint, Alicia Soerenson told the Star in an interview: "To me, there was no question about it."

In a detailed written summary filed to the OIPRD and provided to the Star, Soerenson said she was "aggressively" arrested for trespassing and that officers were "violently physically forceful with me while I was handcuffed despite my compliance."

"It was physical violence to people who were just angry and yelling. (The protesters) were not threatening in any way. To me, it was shocking that (police) could do that just out in the open," Soerenson said.

As of Friday afternoon, Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which probes deaths and some injuries involving police, had not invoked its mandate. The watchdog is only called in if a citizen suffers "serious" injuries, defined as including a fracture to a limb.
A widely shared photograph shows a Toronto officer appearing to grab a woman by the neck.

In an interview, D'Agostino said it's not clear whether their wrist is broken — which would be considered a serious injury. D'Agostino said doctors were concerned about a break, but said there wasn't an obvious fracture on the x-ray; they are now wearing a cast and will go back for more x-rays next week.

In the meantime, D'Agostino said they may consider filing a complaint to the OIPRD.

Both D'Agostino and Soerenson expressed a lack of confidence in the police oversight system. Soerenson explained she didn't have "high expectations, but this is my only recourse."

"Even if I could at least bring forward these issues, that's something," said Soerenson.

Carter, who identified themselves as the person pictured with an officer's hand on their throat, is considering whether to lodge a complaint but hasn't decided.

"What happened to me doesn't really matter. This is just one small, tiny piece of a way bigger problem that is nowhere near being solved," Carter said, noting that few permanent housing options were available to the city's lowest income residents.

Toronto police and its seven-member civilian board have said anyone who feels mistreated by the police can complain to the OIPRD. Earlier this week, police spokesperson Connie Osborne told the Star that all large events "are discussed afterwards to determine any needed changes for future events."

Osborne noted Friday that many of the officers on scene were equipped with body cameras.

In a news release this week, Toronto police said a hatchet, knives and metal objects "were recovered from the site as well as more than 200 syringes which were safely disposed of by city staff."

On CBC's "Metro Morning" on Friday, Tory reiterated that protestors arrived looking for a fight with police and that officers showed "restraint."

"I'm sure by now you've seen the videos and photos of people being shoved and dragged across the ground," said host Ismaila Alfa. "There's even one with an officer who's got his hand around a woman's neck. Was the police use of force appropriate in this situation?

Tory responded: "I can't comment because I haven't seen some of those videos" and then pivoted to say people showed up with goggles and hurled projectiles at officers.

At one point during a tense interview, Tory cut off Alfa's questioning about the violence, raising his voice: "Who started it? Who started it, Ismaila? Who started the violence?"

On Wednesday, the Star sent several images shot during the clearing to the mayor's communications team and a city spokesperson, asking for the mayor to respond.

Questioned about a photo of an officer kneeling on a downed protestor's head, Tory said he had not seen that photo either, but had seen some footage of the clearing.

That photo has been widely shared on social media with a claim the officer's actions violated a police policy against knee-to-neck restraints. Asked about the image, police spokesperson Osborne said: "this is a photo taken during a dynamic response and captures one moment in time, but not any wider context," adding that the officer's knee "does not appear to be on the person's neck."


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