When you haven’t thrown a civic party quite as huge as the NBA Championship parade that crowded downtown Toronto on Monday, you can be forgiven for overlooking a few details. If the Raptors players arrived on stage a few minutes late, for example, it would be excusable. If local streets were a little over-clogged, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
But maintaining public safety and security is one area where we simply can’t drop the ball. At times on Monday, the city missed worse than Shaq at the free throw line.
The good news overall is that despite a shooting that sent four people to hospital, a minor stabbing incident and a few scuffles, the day to celebrate our basketball champions went relatively smoothly. There were no deaths, no rioting and no reported looting—a low bar for a public gathering to be sure, but one that’s unfortunately come to set the mark for the success of any successful North American sports rally.
For someone who was in the heart of the action and had a bird’s eye view as it all played out— stage left at Nathan Phillips Square to be exact—there were still many security lessons to take away from these historic festivities. The unfortunate reality is that the city fell asleep at the wheel when it came to making proactive preparations for our new favourite sports team’s proudest moment.
So, without casting blame, let’s simply make sure to do better next time. Here’s how:
Event planning is key
What became obvious as I stood in the jam-packed square awaiting the team’s arrival was how the city could have benefited from maintaining a standing special events strategy to manage such an occasion. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t had to plan a parade since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, and not since 1967 for the Maple Leafs, but it’s clear that Toronto lacks a contingency plan for mass celebrations that need to be planned on the fly.
Think of it like having an Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response Plan, but with a celebratory spin. The strategy should take into account not only crowd control considerations from parade route planning to timing, but also the potential for a seismic crush of people as spectator numbers inevitably exceed expectations. With more than one million Greater Toronto Area residents estimated to have poured in to downtown on Monday, it’s extremely difficult to account for every potential security and crowd-management scenario with only a few days to prepare. A standing plan would help alleviate that stress and risk.
Praise the police—now add even more of them, including security personnel
So packed was Nathan Phillips Square that when shots rang out during the player and dignitary speeches, I wasn’t able to see a portion of the crowd fleeing in fear. There were simply too many people and it was impossible to see more than just a dozen metres away, let alone across the sprawling, modernist piazza.
The police did an extraordinary job responding, apprehending the alleged assailants and keeping the crowd calm and under control. In fact, their presence was felt on the surrounding streets and, for the most part, they used common sense in letting fans party, intervening in the festivities only when necessary. But there could have been even more officers in the square, along with hired security guards, to help keep the crowds from pushing and shoving. I arrived in the space at 9 am and it was already jammed to capacity. People were still pushing their way in six hours later as the speeches began, creating a dangerous situation with the crowd literally swaying in unison as they tried to preserve their collective footing. Having officers stationed in greater numbers in the middle of the crowd might have helped mitigate the risk of a potential crowd control catastrophe.
In one instance, for example, I watched paramedics struggle to make space to remove an individual who took ill in the middle of that swaying pack, eventually hopping a fence in the VIP area to gain access to the person. Emergency access was almost non-existent, creating a dangerous situation.
Improve access control
Next time around I would love to see access control for Nathan Phillips Square similar to the system used in Jurassic Park, where party-goers have their bags checked and numbers are limited. There is ample food, water and washrooms to accommodate the throngs of people that pack that space, helping to alleviate the crowd rage that can emerge on a hot, sunny day when people are exhausted, thirsty and hungry.
Doing so would also help avoid people entering Nathan Phillips Square with liquor and drugs—there were ample amounts of both on display—which takes away from the family-friendly atmosphere and sets the stage for trouble. At one point I saw parents with two young girls struggling to get one of their children, who was in tears, out of the crowd. She was trapped and the tired crowd was beginning to become more aggressive as it waited for the Raptors’ arrival. The good news: they eventually managed to pull her out. At that point I thought about a potential escape route myself, should the crowd become even more unruly.
What we are reminded is that you can’t allow hundreds of thousands of people to flood into a relatively confined space with no access control and have more people entering than exiting right up until the very end of the celebration.
Speed it up
By all accounts, much of the parade route lacked any kind of roadside barriers to hold back crowds. This meant that excited onlookers could slow the buses and floats—especially the ones carrying team members—to a slow crawl. Players who were supposed to arrive in Nathan Phillips Square at noon didn’t make it there until 3 o’clock. By that point the crowd was in no mood for further delays.
The takeaway here is that parade planning and security needs to be a city-wide initiative. If managing logistics along a lengthy route is too difficult, it may be best to shorten the length of the parade to avoid potential issues. Nearby access roads were so clogged that emergency services vehicles and buses couldn’t move. The TTC suspended service to several subway stations around the square in an attempt to avoid further overcrowding.
I sincerely hope that we can apply these lessons and better manage crowds at future parades, even if the Raptors’ ongoing success may be largely up to Kawhi Leonard to decide. If he signs for another five years, the party could keep going. His contract status notwithstanding, we should be proud of the team’s accomplishments and hold our heads high.
For the most part, Toronto showed its team spirit with dignity, discipline and still managed to throw an unforgettable party. Now, let’s work to do an even better job after our next championship!
Winston Stewart, President and CEO