St. Patrick's Day riot a lesson for first responders
A year after the St. Patrick’s Day riot on Fleming Drive did serious damage to London’s reputation, emergency responders say they have learned from the incident.
The violent night has left images of flying beer bottles, a news van in flames and general chaos in the mind of residents and those outside the city.
It also left many asking how a party on the streets of London could turn from a celebration into something resembling a war zone.
There was a plan in place to contain partiers, says London police Insp. Chris Newton “We had the largest number of officers deployed – ever – for St. Patrick’s Day, because it was a Saturday, it was a weekend.”
And while it seemed to be working, the drinking continued and the crowd grew, especially on Fleming Drive, where 359 homes were largely occupied by students and out-of-town visitors.
Dr. Howard Rundle, president of Fanshawe College, says “It was kind of a perfect storm, because it was St. Patrick’s Day on a weekend and the weather was spring, it was a beautiful day.”
As night fell a dozen police officers had to be brought in to help firefighters trying to put out a blaze on Fleming Drive, and they soon found themselves boxed in and having to don riot helmets.
About 30 minutes later, shortly before 11 p.m., a news van from CTV London arrived on scene and stopped about 300 metres behind the police line.
Newton describes the scene “The street is impassable with a thousand or more people in the crowd. We are holding the line, so to speak, but the line itself is surrounded in all directions. The constant rain of bottles, bricks and debris has begun.”
And in the crowd, Kathleen Smith says she knew things had gone too far, and there was nothing she could do “You could tell by the way people were reacting that something bad was about to happen.”
An unlawful assembly is declared and police fall back.
A CTV London news van was soon overturned and set on fire, with the camera person filming and then being escorted to safety in an EMS vehicle.
For another four hours police waited out the rioters, hoping the crowd wouldn’t move towards them and force them to engage.
But they also has undercover officers in the crowd collecting information.
Fanshawe College had also called in extra security officers and brought in special constables, just in case the riot spread onto the campus.
By 4 a.m. the crowd had eased enough for police to move in and regain control.
Seven of the 11 people arrested that night were Fanshawe College students, as the world watched.
Community reacts to Fleming Drive riot
In the aftermath, Rundle says “It was extremely disappointing. If things had been getting worse, and worse, and worse, it would be expected. But it hadn’t, it was getting better.”
In fact, arrests in the area of Fleming Drive had dropped by 58 per cent over the previous four years.
It had been an encouraging sign for London police Chief Brad Duncan, whose force was working to educate students in responsible behaviour, in cooperation with Fanshawe College and Western University.
“It was disconcerting to have that level of disobedience, given all the activity we had done to quell that over the years.”
Rundle set the tone for Fanshawe’s response at a press conference the day after the riot, announcing suspensions and saying “This is not acceptable, this will not be tolerated, this is inexcusable and we will not have ‘those’ people as students of this college!”
He was expressing the anger being felt by the whole community, and many of those who were on Fleming Drive that night.
Smith, who had left once things got raucous, was stunned to learn her boyfriend was among those arrested, she says “I broke up with him that night. I was disgusted. I can’t be seen in public with someone that’s destroying our city.”
Police set up a task force to search for additional suspects, and with the help of the public (including many on Fleming Drive that night) and social media, eventually charged 68 people.
As those charged have been making their way through the legal system, some, like Marco Brusco, have pleaded guilty and expressed their regret at what happened.
“I am ashamed of my actions on St. Patrick’s Day,” he told reporters. “I realize how much stress I have caused.”
Duncan says that despite feeling pride in the actions of officers at the scene and the 175 charges laid, as a citizen he realizes the damage that has been done to the city.
“This was a mark, when my friends in Australia and Europe, call me and say ‘Brad, is that London, Ontario? Really!?’”
Preventing another riot
As sentences were handed down to those involved in the riot, officials are looking at it as just part of the prevention for future incidents.
Kevin Egan, Brusco’s lawyer, says “I think all of the interests of justice have been served by the sentence that was handed down, and he’s better off and we’re all better off that he didn’t do time with offenders that might have damaged him more.”
In the meantime, changes are being made to Fleming Drive itself, which may not be home to so many students in the future.
Six homes are being converted to house up to five people looking for a new start in life, as landlords agree to move away from student rentals.
Landlords are coming on board in part because many parents aren’t letting students to rent in the area anymore.
Chrystal Ettinger moved into the area in September, and although she’s close in age to the students, she’s looking for a safe, quiet home for her two children.
She says the affordable rent for a home with a backyard is a big attraction and “The more families there are, the more calm it would be.”
And while it has been quiet so far, she worries about what St. Patrick’s Day will bring.