VANCOUVER — The chaos that swept downtown Vancouver after the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss was the work of “criminals and anarchists” who came prepared for trouble, the city’s police chief said Thursday, as he faced questions about why the post-game riot spiralled out of control so quickly and lasted for so long.
The mayhem caused millions of dollars in damage and looting to downtown businesses, at least 150 injuries, including nine police officers, and left a black eye on a city that became an international star when it hosted the Winter Olympics last year.
Chief Jim Chu insisted his police force planned for the worst-case scenario, and when that scenario became a reality, officers in riot gear and on horseback responded. He credited the force for bringing the riot under control in three hours.
But faced with a crowd of tens of thousands packed into the downtown core, Chu said hundreds of officers tasked with controlling the crowds were quickly overwhelmed and unable to wade into the fray.
“Those criminals and anarchists hide behind the large numbers of people who wanted to watch the game,” Chu told reporters in Vancouver.
“When there’s a large number of criminals and anarchists that have a common purpose and intend to break the law, it’s very difficult to stop that.”
More than 100 people were arrested Wednesday night, most for breach of the peace and public intoxication. Of eight people arrested for offences including break and enter, theft, mischief and assault, two were charged, four were released with future court dates and two were released after there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.
Police were inviting the public to submit photos and videos of the mayhem to help them round up more.
The riot appeared to begin in a city-organized celebration site overflowing with fans watching the game on giant outdoor TV screens, as they had throughout the Stanley Cup series. In the dying minutes of the third period, with the Canucks down 4-0, some in the crowd tipped over a car and set it on fire.
The violence quickly spread. Over the next several hours, a total of 15 cars, including two police cruisers, were set ablaze.
Windows were smashed along busy Granville Street and looters streamed into large department stores to emerge with high-end fashion accessories, clothing and make-up.
At the peak of chaos, police officers were noticeably absent. Blocks away, officers in riot gear slowly marched from intersection to intersection, firing canisters of choking tear gas along the way.
Chu said those officers were acting according to plan, focusing on securing the downtown bit by bit, and then holding the ground they gained.
“The objective is to deploy in groups in a strategic manner. If the officers went to every hot spot, the riot would have continued for much longer than it did,” said Chu, adding that officers were deployed throughout the Vancouver area until the riot began, when they were sent downtown.
“In hindsight, if we knew what would happen, we would have had more police officers deployed there, but we didn’t know that. We have to look at the whole region in terms of any problems breaking out.”
Vancouver police officials pointed the finger at a band of troublemakers who came downtown prepared for violence. Hockey fans, police have said, may have been watching, even egging the rioters on, but they weren’t the main source of the problem.
“These were people who came equipped with masks, goggles and gasoline, even fire extinguishers that they would use as weapons,” Chu said, while acknowledging others joined in.
“What we do see in some situations is the hard-core people that have the pre-meditated intent to commit those criminal acts, and we have people on the fringes, ‘Hey, if a big riot breaks out, we’ll join in,’ so we do have that.”
Riots followed the Canucks’ 1994 Stanley Cup loss as well, but last year’s Winter Olympics went off nearly without a hitch.
The ’94 riots caused $1 million in damage, leaving 200 people injured and leading to charges against more than 150 people. Chu said there were about three times as many rioters out Wednesday than in 1994, but he said lessons learned in the past 17 years saw police bring the riot under control in half the time.
During last year’s Winter Games, there were relatively few problems in the street parties that overtook downtown Vancouver, with the exception of an anti-Olympic protest that turned ugly when an anarchist group called the Black Bloc smashed windows and splashed paint on storefronts.
Their efforts to ignite the crowd fizzled after a few blocks and a few smashed windows.
“We recognize some of those same criminals (involved in Wednesday’s riots) as those who took part in the vandalism during the Winter Olympics,” said Chu.
Bob Whitelaw, who was hired by the provincial government to examine the 1994 Stanley Cup riot, said Wednesday night’s riot was worse, and he was critical of the police response.
“One of the major things is that they didn’t disperse the people before the sun went down. Two, they didn’t take proactive action when those cars were set on fire. Three, there were cars left downtown that were damaged. Four, there was no major exit strategy because they closed off some of the intersections trying to reroute people.”
Whitelaw encouraged investigations like those that followed the 1994 riot, so the police can learn what went wrong and make changes.
Vancouver had mostly returned to normal by Thursday afternoon, but there remained evidence of the chaos the night before.
Downtown workers, buskers and street food carts were set before a background of boarded up storefronts, window repair crews and volunteers picking up trash and debris.