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Police make an arrest behind Portage Place mall in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. In the last year, the public's perception of safety in the area has declined, a police-commissioned poll suggests. ((CBC))

The perception of safety in Winnipeg's downtown during the day is on the decline, a public opinion survey commissioned by the Winnipeg Police Service suggests.

Police commissioned the poll — released to CBC News under an access to information request — in 2009 as they tried  to gauge public support for surveillance cameras installed downtown earlier in the year.

"It seems that confidence in daytime safety downtown has eroded across all neighbourhoods," wrote the unidentified police official who summarized the poll findings in a report. 

In a poll done in 2008, more than half the 400 Winnipeggers surveyed agreed with this statement: "During the daytime, downtown Winnipeg is safe."

The number dropped to about 40 per cent in the most recent poll, conducted by Dataprobe Research of Winnipeg.

'I don't feel safe downtown.'— Danielle Slote

Most troubling is that even people living downtown feel less safe during the day, the findings suggest.

In 2008, 85 per cent of the people surveyed agreed the downtown was safe. In the latest poll, the percentage dropped to 42 per cent, although only 4.75 per cent of those surveyed identified themselves as downtown residents.

The majority of randomly selected respondents were women between the ages of 35 and 54. The margin of error of the survey is plus or minus five percentage points,19 times out of 20, the document said.

Panhandlers, vagrants, violence

Interviewed about her sense of safety, Winnipeg newcomer Danielle Slote said she is constantly hassled by panhandlers and vagrants while out walking.

"No, I don't feel safe downtown," Slote said. Sometimes, violence erupts around her, she said.

"I actually run into a lot of problems on the street — just people around here, people asking for money. Lots of fights, lots of violence."

A police officer trying to make the downtown safer said that he thinks crime is on the decline, and that people's perceptions may be skewed.

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Sgt. Darall Kotchon thinks people's sense of safety downtown may be undermined when they see more police in the area. ((CBC))

"They still have a perception that there is crime out there, and usually it's when they see individuals who have a social problem … they are drinking and intoxicated and this is the public's perception of what a criminal looks like," Sgt. Darall Kotchon said.

Kotchon, head of the police service's downtown community support unit, said additional officers, along with media coverage of crime, might also have led people to believe the area is more dangerous.

"I know a lot of my officers have been concentrating on the downtown, making some arrests that were in the media, and that contributes to people's ideas that maybe crime has gone up," Kotchon said.

A criminology professor at the downtown-based University of Winnipeg agreed with Kotchon, saying there's no connection between reality and people's negative perceptions. 

"If you look at Winnipeg, the violent crime rate has gone down subtly over the last several years, so there really isn't a link there," Richard Jochelson said.

People may feel less safe just hearing about crime, even if they have no direct experience of it, he said.

The police survey also suggests:

  • The crimes that Winnipeggers are most concerned about are gang-related.
  • People are becoming increasingly concerned about being sexually assaulted.
  • Some people worry the 10 police-operated surveillance cameras in the downtown might be used as an excuse to replace police officers.

The surveillance camera project is up for review by city hall in March.