(This column was published in the North Shore News on Aug. 11, 1999)


Proactive police head off fireworks

By Leo Knight

WHAT started as a little tale about a guy who was whining about getting four bottles of beer taken by police at last Wednesday's Symphony of Fire event has somehow blossomed into one of the major news stories of the week.  


In the morning tab the day after, the ever witty and erudite columnist Peter Clough, told us of the incident in a piece headed "Boys in blue bag brewskis." Great alliteration in the lighthearted headline and an apt descriptor of the storyline.  


But what followed was a veritable deluge of news reports on all the major radio and television stations as well as front page news in the next couple of editions of the daily papers. All day Friday and Saturday, newscasts were following the story, interviewing criminologists, civil libertarians, lawyers and various other talking heads. The talk shows were focused on the issue with one wag suggesting it was one step away from the tactics of the brown shirts and jackboots of Nazi Germany.  


Vancouver Police spokesperson Anne Drennan did her level best to explain the position of the police and even went so far as to quote the appropriate authorizing section of the Liquor Control and Licensing Act in an effort to educate the ill-informed. And all for naught. Saturday's newscasts were abuzz with the question of whether the police would continue the seizures for that night's event.  


Now, I grant you it's been a slow news week but really, brown shirts and jackboots?  


The police began checking for booze at bottlenecks such as the Skytrain stations and the Seabus terminal six years ago in the wake of the '94 Stanley Cup riot. For all that time they have been diligently checking people heading for the fireworks and if, and only if, they had reason to believe persons were carrying alcohol to be consumed at the beach or on the street, they confiscated the bottles and cans.  


Despite all the Philadelphia lawyers bleating about the police overstepping their authority, the provincial liquor act allows this and has allowed it for as long as I can remember, which goes back to the days of the old Government Liquor Act. So why all the attention now?  


The reality is that the Symphony of Fire evolved from the old Sea Festival which was cancelled by city council after years of problems caused by drunken louts. The Seafest was at one time a two week affair. It had a great many events and was centred around Sunset Beach and English Bay. The world famous Nanaimo to Vancouver bathtub race was an integral part of the festival. Now, because of the booze heads the tubbers just bounce around Nanaimo harbour.  


I remember well in 1981, as a policeman, fighting pitched battles on the beach in what was then called a riot. The fire department had to be called in to hose down drunks firing rocks, bottles and other projectiles at us.  


After a couple of years of trouble, Seafest was cut down to a week, then only a few days. Finally, it had to be cancelled altogether. The only remnant is the fireworks competition now called the Symphony of Fire. But the event does draw a lot of people, usually between 150,000 and 250,000 each time they light up the barge off English Bay.  


When the show is over, all those people begin moving away from the beach and toward the downtown area. The drunks, albeit a minority, are very evident: yelling, fighting, puking and generally firmly establishing that Charles Darwin was in fact, correct.  


The police response was typically, reactive. And so it was in June 1994 after the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals when the Rangers beat the hometown heroes. But the police learned their lessons that night. And it is those lessons which led to their current proactive policy of trying to head off the trouble before it gets started. And it has worked well.  


Which brings me to one of the more stupid things I have heard in the past few days of liberal chest thumping. One talk show host was going on about how there hasn't been any problems and the police should just wade in and arrest someone who is causing a problem, should that situation arise. Clearly the commentator has no sense of either the history of the event nor any knowledge of the dynamics of a crowd. The reason problems have been few in recent years coincides directly with the actions taken by police in being proactive not reactive.  


The Symphony of Fire is a great event for everyone. And it should be. The actions taken by the police in curtailing the lager louts keeps it that way.  


Enough bleating please.






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