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Back to Archives | Back to September 2010 Contents 

An Olympic Medal for Policing: Lessons and Experiences from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics

By Jim Chu, Chief Constable, Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


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n February 2010, the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games were successfully staged in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; the resort community of Whistler; and adjoining municipalities. Vancouver became the largest metropolitan area to host the Winter Games, and an unprecedented number of athletes, officials, spectators, and celebrants participated in the event, which also was watched by record television audiences. When the Olympics concluded, many compliments were extended to the games’ organizers, the volunteers, and, notably, the law enforcement agencies that kept the games safe. This article will highlight the key policing challenges and offer lessons learned on public order–policing practices that apply to any large-scale public event.


The Background

Security is always a paramount consideration during the Olympics, and the lead responsibility for the security of the Vancouver 2010 games was given to Canada’s national police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Early in the process, the RCMP realized that an operation of this scale and magnitude required strong partnerships with local police agencies of jurisdiction and, hence, created the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (ISU), which primarily comprised police and military security planners. The overall security budget for the ISU was approximately $555 million.

Officers work at the Vancouver Police Department's
emergency operations center.

The policing story of the 2010 Winter Olympics can be broken down into three components:

  1. The protection of Olympic Games participants (athletes, officials, and spectators)

  2. The right to freely assemble and protest

  3. The management of large celebratory crowds


Protecting Participants

The ISU took responsibility for the security of the official competition venues and several noncompetition venues, including the athletes’ villages, the main media center, and the Vancouver International Airport. In addition, the ISU was responsible for athlete transportation security and the protection of internationally protected persons. It is well known that past Olympic Games have attracted terrorists (for example, the 1972 hostage taking and killing of Israeli athletes in Munich, West Germany) and lone-wolf criminals (for example, the 1996 Atlanta park bombing). Numerous heads of state and other internationally protected persons attend. More than 6,000 police officers; 4,500 private security personnel; and 4,000 Canadian military resources were utilized to ensure these official Olympic sites were secure. To fortify venues such as the hockey stadium and ski hills, the ISU created airport-style screening checkpoints for staff and spectators and constructed fence lines with perimeter detection systems and closed-circuit television cameras. Outside the fence lines, security fell to the local police of jurisdiction with ISU resources for support and for national security incidents. The hosting jurisdictions received funding through the ISU to help cover the associated costs of policing the games.

This high level of readiness and security delivered by the ISU resulted in a great outcome of no terrorist or serious criminal acts occurring in any official Olympic site. Overall, venues were safe and secure, and the policing story of the 2010 Winter Olympics shifted from security of the official sites to policing protests and the large celebratory crowds. Within the city of Vancouver, both of these challenges were the responsibility of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).


Political Protests

The city of Vancouver is considered one of the world’s most liberal cities. It has a large concentration of illicit drug users (including users of crack cocaine and heroin) and is home to the first supervised drug-injection site in North America. During the lead-up to the games, activist groups in Vancouver made public accusations that Vancouver police would cleanse the city and suppress dissent by

  • sweeping the streets clean of the mentally ill and poor people,

  • kidnapping homeless people and shipping them out of town,

  • kicking in doors of homes and businesses to take away signs that criticized the Olympics, and

  • beating and arresting protesters.

The local branch of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association initiated a legal observer program for volunteers to receive special training in law; first aid (to help people beaten by the police); and use of video recorders to capture what the association claimed would be inevitable instances of excessive force by police. To counter these allegations, senior police officers from the VPD and the ISU went on public record and met with these groups to reiterate that the right to protest, which is guaranteed under Canadian law, would be upheld by the police and that no special measures to sweep the streets would occur. The activist groups remained relentless with their condemnations of the police, and the news media reported on these criticisms.

The Canadian Constitution guarantees rights such as freedom of assembly, thought, religion, and expression. Approximately three times a week and throughout the year, protests are held in Vancouver with causes ranging from local issues (for example, the environment and homelessness) to international issues (for example, oppression in Iran and antiglobalization). One of the larger Critical Mass rides for freedom to ride bicycles occurs in the city’s downtown core. All of these events take place without serious incident, and, overall, the VPD has a strong track record of facilitating lawful protests.


Police face protesters at the 2010 Winter Olympics
opening ceremony.

The first test of the VPD approach to protests occurred two days before the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Vancouver and wanted to attend a Chinese New Year celebration in a Chinatown community center. Protesters who were in disagreement over his administration’s opposition to the supervised injection site quickly marshalled 200 agitated protesters and blocked the entrance to the community center. They used chains and tape to lock the doors. The VPD police commander at the scene decided to allow the protest to continue, and after the protesters made their point with the news cameras, they withdrew and VPD officers removed the tape and chains from around the doors.

The next day had protest groups looking for key places along the Olympic Torch Relay to disrupt the procession. They laid down barbed wire and blockaded intersections. The torch was rerouted around these blockades and instead of the image of armed and helmeted police arresting protesters, the media reported on school children and war veterans who missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the torch because of the “selfish” protesters.1

The next day, just prior to the opening ceremony, 1,500 chanting protesters wound their way through Vancouver streets and were shadowed by VPD bicycle patrol officers. While traffic disruptions were tolerated, a preplanned decision was made that the opening ceremony would not be interrupted. The proverbial “line in the sand” was drawn on the street outside a stadium that was filled with 60,000 spectators and athletes.

The protesters were stopped by 350 officers from the VPD and the ISU/RCMP. The VPD officers were specially trained officers from the Crowd Control Unit (CCU), who locked arms and would not let the crowd move closer to the stadium. They were backed by officers on horseback and arrest teams. The CCU commander deployed his officers in soft hats without face shields.

As the night went on, the composition of the protest groups became clearer. Some were idealistic people who wanted to peacefully express their personal beliefs. This included Native Indian elders, seniors against poverty, and environmentalists. The same crowd also contained approximately 100 anarchists and criminals who practiced a technique called Black Bloc. This tactic is used by anarchists who cover their faces and heads with black, ninja-style masks to make it difficult to identify them when they commit criminal acts.

As dusk descended, this large crowd surged several times, but the police line held steady. The criminal protesters became frustrated. They wanted police officers to wade into their ranks and start fights with them. They wanted the image of a police officer hitting a protester with a baton. They wanted to get tear gassed. They wanted the news media to record images of the police battling protesters, like what happened at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) riots, the 1997 Vancouver Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) confrontations, and the 2001 Quebec City Summit of the Americas riots. The anarchists spat into the faces of the frontline officers. They threw barricades and tried to incite the legitimate protesters to violence by shouting “The police are beating the elders!” and other lies.

One woman on the front line was 53-year-old Shena Meadowcroft, who was personally against the government spending on the Olympics. Her account in an e-mail to the Vancouver police chief provides the best description of the restraint shown by the integrated public-order officers.

I myself spent the better part of an hour or more face to face with several police officers. I will never forget how extraordinarily well I was treated by them. I wish that I could personally thank each and every one of the police officers who showed the utmost concern to my well-being that night. I was continually offered an opportunity to leave, and when I expressed my need to remain where I was, my needs were respected. Even while there was intense pushing and shoving on both sides, several of the officers kept asking me if I was OK.
     Your officers were continuously insulted and spat upon, screamed at. At no time did I see any of them respond with anything but civility and politeness. What I can say is that no one deserves the continual berating and harassment, obscenities and personal attacks that these officers were subject to that night.

The opening ceremony protest was volatile and could have erupted into violence and mass arrests that would have overshadowed the event. Fortunately, the night ended peacefully. There was only one arrest; no protesters were injured, although two police officers had minor injuries. The news media reported on the exceptional restraint shown by the police, and the civil liberties “legal observers” had nothing to record.


Officers approach protesters in the Heart Attack march
in Vancouver's downtown.

The disciplined police response during the preceding week reduced the number of protesters that turned out the following morning for the so-called Heart Attack protest march designed to “clog” downtown streets. The attendance from legitimate protesters was low because during the last few days, the VPD had upheld the rights to free assembly and the expression of personal beliefs. Instead of the anger towards the police growing like it did in the Seattle WTO, Vancouver APEC, and Quebec City conflicts, the enmity towards the police and state institutions waned significantly. On the contrary, the public resentment towards the protesters was increasing.

The Heart Attack march began with several anarchists openly encouraging criminal acts to provoke the police. Instead of being backed by 1,400 legitimate protesters like the night before, the approximately100 criminal anarchists had only about 100 legitimate protesters to hide behind. The criminals again used the Black Bloc technique and as they marched along Vancouver streets, they started to damage cars and buildings.

They arrived in the downtown core and began to smash the windows of a retailer that sold Olympic clothing. It was at this point that the VPD CCU officers, backed up by ISU/RCMP tactical troop officers, were deployed onto the streets to make arrests. CCU members heard citizens on the street applaud them as they exited their vans. The people on the streets shouted “Go, VPD, go get them” as the officers made arrests and dispersed the protesters. After about 90 minutes of physical confrontations, the criminal protesters were under police control and seven arrests were made at the scene.

The news media covered these arrests extensively and the public sentiment was overwhelmingly supportive of the police actions. Afterward, the police media statements were careful to distinguish that the police arrested the “criminal protesters” and still respected the rights of the “peaceful protesters” to express their views.

The death of a Georgian luge athlete in a training run, the warm weather and lack of snow, and the disruptions by the criminal protesters had prompted a British reporter to label that particular Olympics as the “worst games ever.”2 However, by the end of the second day, the wind in the sails of the anti-Olympic protest movement had dissipated. In subsequent days, the protest movement broke further apart with the anarchists being shunned by those who respected Canadian laws. At one meeting, the head of the local branch of the Civil Liberties Association received an actual pie in the face because he had criticized the law breakers.


People protest homelessness during the 2010 Winter
Olympics closing ceremony.

There were still two or three protests each day of the Olympics, but each was poorly attended with only a dozen or so participants and drew minimal media attention. By the last few days, the police had to protect protesters from exuberant Canadian hockey fans who were shouting “Get a job.” The tide definitely turned against protesters on the second day of the Olympics, thanks to police restraint, shifting the media’s and the public’s attention to the athletes and the actual sporting events.


The Celebratory Crowds

There were several free pavilions and live sites where the public could soak up the Olympic atmosphere. Tickets were not necessary and as the week went on, the number of people converging in the downtown core approached several hundred thousand. It was impossible to walk around without seeing wall-to-wall people with red mittens and Olympic and Canadian clothing. Local residents showed unprecedented patriotism and support for the games, and visitors also enjoyed the streets of Vancouver. The weather was the warmest winter on record for Vancouver, and people basked in the sunshine.

Vancouver bore the legacy of the 1994 Stanley Cup riots. After the local hockey team lost the final playoff game, thousands of rampaging youths broke windows, looted stores, overturned police cars, and damaged property. Furthermore, concerns over potential riotous behavior caused Vancouver police spokesperson Constable Anne Drennan to tell the public not to come downtown for New Year’s celebrations for the year 2000.3 This gave rise to the label “no fun city” and for many years; the VPD was criticized for starting the “no fun” reputation.

During the games, the large day and evening crowds were concentrated in the blocks comprising the downtown Granville Street Entertainment District (GED), which is populated by numerous restaurants and bars. The crowds in the GED got larger each night as people flocked to celebrate medal and hockey team wins. Up to three hockey games per day would bring 18,000 spectators into the GED. The VPD media spokespersons encouraged people to come downtown and celebrate and talked about the fun and family-oriented atmosphere.

The GED came into existence around 10 years ago when 1,700 liquor seats were added to the area, along with extended hours. At first, the GED became known as the Street of Shame because of the large number of fights, drunken hooliganism, and rowdy behavior. The beat officers working the GED called the weekends “fight nights.” Police commanders ordered officers to practice zero tolerance and to enforce all laws to crack down on the aggressive behavior.

Four years ago, the VPD adopted new strategies in the GED. Instead of zero tolerance, the VPD adopted a meet-and-greet strategy with officers in visible vests making eye contact with people and encouraging people to have fun in a responsible manner. Street closures created more walking room and people started to come to the GED to experience the nightlife and street ambience. The meet-and-greet strategy was ideal for the massive Olympic crowds, and the experienced CCU members formed the bulk of the GED policing contingent.

Even though hundreds of thousands of people were staying downtown in the evening hours, there was only one problematic night. Midway during the games, a disk jockey named Deadmau5 (pronounced “Deadmouse”) played at a city-run outdoor concert site. Thousands of people arrived in the early afternoon to line up to get into the venue. Thousands more were turned away and decided to party in the street. Deadmau5 turned up the volume so that people outside the venue would hear his performance. The VPD then had to police large and potentially unruly crowds both inside and outside the venue.

A significant amount of illicit drug and liquor consumption took place that night. People refuelled their exuberance by swarming nearby liquor stores. When the concert ended, 15,000 youth headed to the GED, which was already full of intoxicated people. The Canadian men’s hockey team had lost to the United States in a game earlier that evening, and flag carrying Americans were harassed. There was a tenor of violence in the air. Many fights occurred. Fortunately, as the night went on, the situation stabilized and no major problems were experienced, thanks to proactive police intervention.

The next day, the VPD approached the provincial liquor board and obtained an emergency order for liquor stores to close early, at 7 p.m., for the remainder of the Olympics. This was a strategy identified in the 1994 Stanley Cup riot review report. VPD CCU officers on the GED were backed up with additional ISU/RCMP resources. In addition, a perimeter policing strategy was put into place using 100 additional police officers to monitor the laneways, the transit stations, and the pedestrian corridors. People who appeared to be consuming alcohol were stopped. Liquor was poured out and those who were uncooperative received $230 fines for consuming liquor in public. This strategy, coupled with the inability of celebrants to refuel on alcohol, created greater calm on the remaining nights.

An important component of the VPD policing strategy was the media messaging. VPD media spokespeople encouraged people of all ages to come downtown and enjoy the street party. Attempts by the news media to paint the GED as unsafe were rebuffed. The VPD reasoned that if the general public was told to worry about drunken hooligans, they would be deterred from coming downtown, which would mean that crowds would be dominated by drunken hooligans, and Vancouver would be the “no fun city” again. Instead, the VPD encouraged people of all ages and backgrounds to come downtown, have fun, and enjoy the street ambience. VPD CCU officers facilitated crowd movements, shook hands, and posed for many pictures.


Fans of Team Canada celebrate a gold medal win in hockey.

The last day of the Olympics saw Canada win the men’s hockey gold medal in overtime. Two hundred thousand people poured into the downtown core, and revellers engaged in impromptu renditions of the Canadian anthem and other cheers. The relationship between the police and the celebrants was extremely positive. The police were viewed as cocelebrants and were constantly high-fived and thanked for keeping everyone safe. The smiles of the officers, their discretionary approach to public liquor consumption ticketing, and the message to come downtown because the police would ensure the public’s safety created many fans of policing. Celebrants would chant “Can-a-da,” and when they saw Vancouver police officers, they would chant “V-P-D.”


Lessons Learned


A VPD officer poses with a
member of the public in the
downtown Granville Street
Entertainment District.

The major lessons that were learned or reinforced during the games include the following:

  1. Ensure there is a clear division of responsibility. An event as large as the Olympics has many overlapping issues and resources. The ISU, of which the VPD was an integral part, established a clear chain of responsibility and accountability. The ISU engaged in detailed planning, kept the athletes and venues safe, and offered significant support to the local police.

  2. Don’t give a reason to protesters to hate the police. Many changes in unjust laws and policies have come about because of legitimate protests. The police should facilitate freedom of expression and make arrests only when the actions are clearly criminal.

  3. Create balanced crowd dynamics. The more you can encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to participate in an event, the more likely hooliganism will look out of place and be considered inappropriate. The crowd can help police itself with the condemnation of bad behavior. Drunken people behave better when there are children and seniors in proximity, and the police can help create this healthy balance of celebrants with positive media messages.

  4. Training is critical. The VPD created a highly trained crowd control unit, and senior personnel were trained with overseas agencies. The VPD has a public order commander certification program. New commanders are mentored and are certified for command only after adequate performance in real situations. The patience and discipline shown by frontline CCU members on the opening night was a significant turning point in the policing of the games.

  5. Discourage festival seating. For performers who attract a crowd that is more prone to irresponsible behavior, do not permit organizers to offer festival seating. This will give rise to lengthy lineups and large numbers of frustrated concertgoers who cannot gain admission into the venue. This doubles the problem as the police have to secure both inside and outside a venue. If tickets for general admission are used instead, lineups and problems can be minimized.

  6. Meet and greet people. VPD officers were well versed in making eye contact with visitors to the GED. They wore visible reflective vests and worked in pods to disperse unruly gatherings. They used a relaxed approach, and their goal was to calm situations. As the games went on, the officers felt like part of the celebration and smiled and posed for many pictures.

  7. Prepare for the unexpected. The VPD and the ISU were able to address shifting needs for resources. In spite of the best forecasting and planning, the games had more people congregating downtown than was expected. Because of the ability of the police agencies to work together and adjust to changing dynamics, the public was kept safe and no major incidents occurred.

  8. Set reasonable boundaries on behavior. Many celebrants wanted to consume liquor in public places, which is permitted in some jurisdictions. Striking the right balance between enforcement (it is against local laws in the provincial Liquor Control and Licensing Act to consume liquor in public) and warnings can keep the crowd in check, while also creating goodwill.

  9. Lead your staff. Over the 17 days of the Olympics, the VPD chief and his command staff walked the front lines meeting officers, members of the public, and the news media. While reports up the chain of command are helpful, it is also important to see and experience the situations firsthand and talk directly to officers on the front lines to better understand and interpret what is going on. For extended deployments, encouraging tired officers and bolstering their spirits are critical. Fatigue and associated impatience was a significant concern, and the frequent sightings of command officers helped staff morale.


A VPD officer is pictured with members of the public
during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Victory Lap

The story of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics was not about security, crime, or stifling of legitimate dissent. It was rightly about the athletes and public celebration. During and after the Olympics, kudos and compliments flowed into the VPD in the form of letters, e-mails, and phone calls. VPD officers had strangers offer to pay their dinner tabs. People openly praised the police and the local newspaper printed “Police Deserve a Medal for their Performance.”4 Even the Civil Liberties Association complimented the police and noted that not one instance of wrongdoing was observed by their legal observers.

The combined efforts of the VPD- and the RCMP-led ISU created a high benchmark for policing. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, in a letter to a Vancouver newspaper, wrote, “As a native and lifelong citizen of the great city of New Orleans, which knows how to put on a world-class event, I would like to so express how impressed I was with your city when I visited for the 2010 Winter Olympics.”5 NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams expressed his thanks for “securing this massive event without choking security and without publicly displaying a single automatic weapon.”6 People from everywhere had the time of their lives because of the gold medal performance of the Vancouver police and the policing partners in the ISU. ■

Law enforcement agencies can obtain a detailed report on policing the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver by contacting the author at jim.chu@vpd.ca.


Vancouver Police Department members (from left)
Deputy Chief Doug LePard; Chief Constable Jim Chu;
and Deputy Chief Bob Rolls walk through the
downtown Granville Street Entertainment District.

Notes:

1Quoting British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell; CanWest Olympic Team, “Anti-Olympic Protesters Clash with Police in Vancouver,” Vancouver Sun, February 22, 2010, http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Anti+Olympic+protesters+clash+with+police+Vancouver/2561450/story.html (accessed August 17, 2010).
2Lawrence Donegan, “Vancouver Games Continue Downhill Slide from Disaster to Calamity,” The Guardian, February 15, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2010/feb/15/vancouver-winter-olympics-2010 (accessed August 17, 2010).
3Craig Jones, “The Mayor, the Police, and the ‘Culture of Arrogance,’ ” British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (from the Vancouver Sun, January 14, 2000), http://www.bccla.org/othercontent/00craignewyears.html (accessed August 17, 2010).
4“Police Deserve a Medal for Their Performance,” Vancouver Sun, March 4, 2010, http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Police+deserve+medal+their+performance/2639788/story.html (accessed August 13, 2010).
5Tom Benson, “Saints Owner Impressed,” Vancouver Sun, March 23, 2010, http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/Saints+owner+impressed/2715023/story.html(accessed August 13, 2010).
6Brian Williams, “Leaving behind a Thank you Note,” the Daily Nightly on msnbc.com, February 26, 2010, http://dailynightly.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/02/26/4372324-leaving-behind-a-thank-you-note (accessed August 13, 2010).

Please cite as:

Jim Chu, "An Olympic Medal for Policing: Lessons and Experiences from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics," The Police Chief 77 (September 2010): 20–28,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM0910/index.php#/20 (insert access date).


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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