Controversial Winnipeg police chief to step down

Winnipeg police Chief Jack Ewatski will step down later this year, a decision that he said has nothing to do with criticism he faced last year during James Driskell's wrongful conviction inquiry.

Winnipeg police Chief Jack Ewatski willstep downlater this year,a decision that he said has nothing to do with criticism he faced last year during James Driskell's wrongful conviction inquiry.

A police service release issued Wednesday said Ewatski has decided to retire after 34 years in the force, including almost nine years as chief. His contract with the city was not supposed to expire until the end of 2008.

Ewatski told CBC News on Wednesday that his decision to retire was based on an upcoming milestone — his 55th birthday, which will be in March — and was"absolutely not" related to the Driskell inquiry report, which is due out later in January and could potentiallybe critical of Ewatski's conduct as a police inspector in the early 1990s.

"The decision to leave when I was 55 was made when I was in discussions with the CAO of the city going back over three years ago, in deciding whether or not I would sign on for a second five-year term," he said.

"So really, the timing of the Driskell report has absolutely nothing to do with this decision."

Ewatski notified the city's chief administrative officer, Annitta Stenning, on Wednesday of his intention to retire on a pension from the force.

Ewatski was appointed Winnipeg police chief in November 1998. His last day of work will beJune 29, which will be followed by holidays and his official retirement on Sept. 15.

The announcement surprised Mayor Sam Katz, who told reporters that Ewatski informed him of his decision on Wednesday morning, less than two hours before the news release came out.

"Chief Ewatski's experience and leadership have been an incredible asset to Winnipeg, and I thank him for nine years of service as the chief of police," Katz said.

Katz stressed that no one encouraged Ewatski to leave his post, and denied suggestions that the chief's retirement had anything to do with the Driskell inquiry.

"Was there any politician [or] anybody else trying to get the chief to leave early? Absolutely not," Katz said.

The announcement alsoshocked St. Vital Coun. Gord Steeves, who chairs the protection standing committee, which oversees the Winnipeg Police Service.

News was 'a sad shock': councillor

"I had heard — and you hear things around here — that Jack at some point might be stepping down," Steeves said.

"But I have to tell you that receiving the release today [Wednesday] specifically was something of a surprise and kind of a sad shock, to be honest with you."

Steeves said he doesn't think Ewatski's decision to retire is related to the Driskell report.

Ewatski is also president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, andhis term ends in August. Peter Cuthbert, the association's executive director, said Wednesday that Ewatski's departure won't affect his tenure as association president.

Ewatski has been under fire in 2006, during the public inquiry looking into Driskell's wrongful murderconviction.

Ewatskihad beenaccused of withholding information about the 1990 murder of Perry Dean Harder that was crucial to Driskell's lawyers.

Driskell spent 12 years behind bars for Harder'sslaying. His first-degree murder conviction was quashed by the federal justice ministerin 2005.

During the inquiry, Driskell told reporters he would like to see Ewatski resign as police chief.

Legacy mixed: criminologist

Retired Winnipeg criminologist Doug Skoog said Wednesday that while Ewatski will also be known for his "very aggressive stance" on street gangs and outlaw motorcycle gangs, his tenure will be better remembered for problems, such as his handling of the Driskell matter.

"He was a very pivotal figure in that. He's been targeted by Driskell's lawyers as perhaps being involved in some kind of a coverup," Skoog said.

Under Ewatski's leadership, the Winnipeg Police Servicewas also accused of racism by aboriginal leaders, who said he did not do enough to improve trust between police and native people.

At the same time, Ewatski received the Governor General's Police Exemplary Service Medal in 1994 and 2004, as well as the Queen's Jubilee Medal.

Ewatskisaid he will leavewith fond memories and optimism for the policeforce's future.

"I remember the first hour of day one in this job and I'll never forget that. It's been a great career, a rewarding career, and I'm blessed," he said.

"I think Winnipeg Police Service is second to none. Second to none. And I think the citizens of this city should be proud of them."