Reading the Riot Act

Is a seldom used law still relevant?

A mob mentality is not a natural disaster, free of human agency. It is a consequence of choices. Those who try to excuse illegal acts by claiming they got swept up in the mob ignore the fact that once they became part of the mob, they were as responsible for encouraging others to join in as anyone else. One cannot blame the mob for their actions without sharing some of the responsibility for everything it does.

Matt Gurney – National Post columnist 

There is no area in greater need of serious study and de-briefing than crowd and riot control. Whether due to overly cautious police managers or simple confusion, the topic rarely receives serious attention.

The Justice Canada Project was set up at one time to determine whether to do away with underutilized statutes in the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC). The offence of “alarming her Majesty the Queen,” for example, according to an October 2012 news story, should be thrown out because it hasn’t been laid for 150 years. Assisting deserters is also up for elimination.

I was surprised to hear Section 69, which applies to peace officers who fail to take reasonable precautions to stop a riot, is also on the chopping block. Sections 64 to 69 are rarely applied these days; few police leaders even understand when they should be used or do not wish to be compelled to do something that may offend some sensibilities.

Announcing something is out of date because no one has the courage to enforce it is hardly a reason to eliminate it. Despite facing hundreds of drunken youths throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, burning cars, smashing shop windows and looting, police seem to consistently fail to understand when a riot is happening.

The saddest testament to all this is learning that, in some cases, police managers had knowledge of these sections and still refused to use them. Instead they made a half-hearted attempt to contain the disturbance to a small area and sacrifice everything within it rather than end it.

If you’re reporting to the media that this was the worst case of civil disobedience you’ve ever seen, it’s clear you should have done more to stop it. When you, as a senior manager, are not present at the disturbance, it should be clear to the community you did the least possible to stop it. When Mayors and deputy Mayors don’t show up at major disturbances they not only demonstrate lack of care for their community – they break the law.

Section 67 CCC states:

“A person who is a… mayor… who receives notice that, at any place within the jurisdiction of that person, 12 or more persons are unlawfully and riotously assembled together shall go to that place and, after approaching as near as is safe, if the person is satisfied that a riot is in progress, shall command silence and thereupon make or cause to be made in a loud voice a proclamation in the following words or to the like effect: ‘Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business on the pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to imprisonment for life. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.

A couple of reasons why this section has never been prosecuted immediately come to mind. It would be bad optics arresting the mayor… or police chief for that matter, for not doing their job. My spidey sense is beginning to tingle. When the GWO (Great Wizard of Ottawa) sets up a study to eliminate little used laws, do you think the entire section on riots will be on the hit list? Tell me it ain’t so…. and I still might not believe you.

I spoke to a few confidants about these sections and encountered a little consternation. One response was that these sections present a pretty high bar to prove a riot exists. I pointed out there is a clear definition of such in the Code.

ss. 64. A riot is an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously.

Another wondered whether it would not be better to simply use the lesser offences under “unlawful assembly” because you don’t have to get into messy stuff like calling out the mayor and maybe charging officers for not doing their duty.

Here’s a hint. Reading the “Riot Act” is not meant to scare away the rioters. lt’s to give the innocent bystanders and curiosity seekers 30 minutes notice to leave so police can deal with the violent law breakers that remain. Separating the wheat from the chaff is important.

It is usually after the grace period required in the Riot Act is read that the arguably infamous “kettling” of a crowd may be performed. The police round up all who are left and everyone in the kettle is charged. There are no excuses such as “I was just taking pictures,” “I was on my front lawn watching” or “I am a journalist.” They must clear out and return to their homes or business or risk “imprisonment for life.”

In my humble opinion the answer is simple. These laws are very concise and supply a very clear remedy to large planned or spontaneous acts of violence. Our forefathers put much thought into this regulation and, once you study it and understand human nature, it all fits perfectly in place.

Risk-averse supervisors should be cautioned that any tepid response to these events will only place the city and police service at risk of criminal or civil remediation by victims; that cost may quickly outstrip the call-back costs for extra officers. The overly proud supervisors who hate asking for help from within or from other agencies (eg. fire services or other police) should likewise balance the cost of their inaction.

I have serious concerns about how riots are handled and fear a repeat by those emboldened by the sight of police performing their “strategic retreats.” A tepid response by police witnessing a violent act is tantamount to encouraging it. Inaction is not an option.