Is crime in Winnipeg really getting worse?

Crime is the most prevalent voter concern in this election campaign. CBC News takes a big-picture look at the numbers behind that concern - and how Winnipeg might respond.

The answer is yes, in recent years - but no, when you look over the long term

(Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Kristie Sidwall woke up on Saturday to find a door to her garage pried open.

Her family never leaves that door open. Some time overnight, someone entered the attached garage, rifled through two cars and stole two bicycles.

"It seems like crime is getting worse," said the resident of the Rockwood neighbourhood, who lives with her husband, two kids and a dog.

It's a familiar refrain in Winnipeg, and not just in the city's southwestern quadrant. According to a Probe Research poll commissioned by CBC News at the end of August, crime has leapfrogged over infrastructure to become the most prevalent concern for residents of this city.

The Probe poll of 600 adults suggests crime is a top concern of 24 per cent of Winnipeggers, up from 11 per cent at the end of the 2017. The 24-per-cent figure, which has an error margin of four per cent, can be viewed in a number of ways.

Crime is now a top concern for more Winnipeggers than any other issue - but still not a top concern for most.

On one hand, only one in four Winnipeg voters see crime as one of the most important issues facing the city. The other three are more concerned about fixing roads, homelessness, health care or other issues.

On the other hand, crime is a top concern for more Winnipeggers than any single other issue, suggesting civic election candidates who ignore the issue do so at their own peril.

Is crime really on the rise?

The question is, is crime really getting worse? The best available data suggest the answer depends on how far back you wish to look.

According to data provided by the Winnipeg Police Service to Statistics Canada, reported crimes have risen over the past three years in Winnipeg.

The total number of crimes reported to police in Winnipeg rose from 2015 to 2017, reflecting recent rises elsewhere in Canada. When you break down those crimes into various categories, reports of almost every type of crime have also risen during that time frame.

Reported crime in Winnipeg is down over the long term, but up in recent years (CBC News Graphics)

When you look at crime statistics, it's important to be mindful of what criminologists call the "hidden figure of crime," which is the gulf between actual crimes and those reported to police.

For example, crimes such as homicide and car theft are almost always reported and investigated. As a result, police statistics about homicide and car theft paint an extremely reliable picture of those crimes, especially in a city the size of Winnipeg.

That picture is fuzzier when it comes to crimes a such vandalism or theft, which appear to be less likely to be reported in Winnipeg, never mind investigated. Police statistics regarding sexual assault may paint an even less-reliable picture, given the reluctance of sex-crime victims to come forward with allegations against their assailants.

The rise in reported crimes in a number of different statistical categories, however, lends credence to the conclusion crime really has risen in Winnipeg over the past three years. While the violent crimes most likely to be reported are up, so is property crime and reports of breaking-and-entering, which are categories of crime less likely to be reported.

In other words, it's clear Winnipeg is experiencing more crime today than it did two or three years ago.

Short-term spike, long-term drop

The short-term spike in crime statistics, however, comes at the end of a long period where reports of crime in Winnipeg have been declining. Crime is actually half as prevalent now as it was about 14 or 15 years ago.

According to the same Winnipeg Police Service data provided to Statistics Canada, crime peaked in Winnipeg in the early part of the last decade — 2003 and 2004 — before bottoming out half a generation later, in 2015 and 2016.

This long-term decline mirrored a national trend, which criminologists attributed partly to an aging population. The belief is, older people are less likely to commit crimes, or at least the types of crimes that are reported to police.

The fact that most categories of crime dropped in Winnipeg at roughly the same rate over the past two decades lends credence to the conclusion crime is less prevalent now than it was 14 or 15 years ago.

This complicates efforts to formulate policy in response to crime: Yes, crime is going up, but no, it's nowhere near as bad now as it was the year Sam Katz took over as mayor from Glen Murray.

Police responsible for more than crime

At this point, you may suspect these statistics aren't painting a reliable picture of safety in Winnipeg, where — as the Probe poll established — concern about crime is getting worse.

This may be because of the random nature of violent crimes committed by people under the influence of methamphetamine, which was late to arrive in Winnipeg compared to some other North American centres. 

This may also be because police are busier than ever, and not just because of crime.

For years, both the Winnipeg Police Service and the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service have warned frontline employees have been thrust into the role of social workers. Emergency workers are often called upon to contend with people suffering from mental health issues, addictions and other social-welfare crises.

It's unreasonable to absolve emergency workers of this responsibility; the well-being of citizens is at stake. But there is no question the demands on police are greater now.

While reported crimes bottomed out two or three years ago in Winnipeg, the number of police dispatches — that is, the number of times when police were sent to contend with some situation or another — has steadily increased over the past decade.

Police are called upon more often than they used to be. (CBC News Graphics)

Dispatch incidents, however, represent just a fraction of the demands on the police. There are even more calls for service than there are dispatches, as the Winnipeg Police Association has repeatedly warned in recent years.

The question of how to handle these calls requires city hall to make policy decisions.

Does Winnipeg have enough police officers?

One way to increase the capacity of the police service is to simply add more officers. Right now, Winnipeg ranks No. 7 among Canadian cities in officers per capita, behind Victoria, Montreal, Halifax, Thunder Bay, Vancouver and Windsor, Ont.

Police numbers alone do not dictate how well police services operate. For example, the Winnipeg Police Service has attempted to free up more officers to conduct frontline work by handing crowd-control, traffic-control and other duties to its auxiliary cadets.

Winnipeg ranked 7th among Canadian cities in police per capita in 2017. Note that these figures are for municipal boundaries, not metropolitan areas where there may be more than one police service in and around a city. The City of Vancouver, for example, is a small portion of the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area. (CBC News Graphics)

The efficiency of the police service has also come under the microscope, especially as spending on policing has risen over the decades. Most of that rise has been due to salaries and benefits for police officers, partly because the city hired more of them and partly because of the terms of collective bargaining agreements.

More importantly, the cost of all emergency services — policing, fighting fires and providing ambulance care and transport — has risen faster in Winnipeg than the cost of delivering other city services.

Police spending under a microscope

Together, the Winnipeg Police Service and the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service now account for now almost 45 per cent of Winnipeg's $1.08-billion operating budget. This is in spite of recent city efforts to negotiate labour agreements with less dramatic wage hikes for police officers and firefighters.

The police service alone accounts for nearly 27 per cent of the city's operating budget.

The Winnipeg Police Service accounts for 27 per cent of Winnipeg's $1.08-billion operating budget this year. (CBC News Graphics)

Over the past two years, the Winnipeg Police Association has maintained the city has failed to inject enough money into the police service to keep pace with its needs.

This has led to an adversarial relationship between the union and incumbent mayoral candidate Brian Bowman, who repeatedly notes the city was able to achieve labour peace with the union in 2017 by negotiating a labour deal instead of entering into arbitration.

During the first few months of this election campaign, mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk has argued Bowman has failed to do enough to keep the city safe. But while she has pledged to devote more money for police school resources, she too has stated she would not increase spending on the police service if she's elected mayor this fall.

In fact, both of Winnipeg's most popular mayoral candidates speak in terms of making the police service more efficient, rather than opening up the spending floodgates.

Both candidates may have no other choice. Bowman has already committed the proceeds from his promised 2.33 per cent tax hike — another $13.7 million next year — to infrastructure. Motkaluk is hinting at a tax freeze or even a tax cut, which would leave her even less room to spend on policing.

Does city council even matter?

When voters concerned about crime decide how to vote, they must also be aware of the role of the Winnipeg Police Board, which works with the Winnipeg Police Service to develop a police budget.

The board exists, at least in theory, to depoliticize policing decisions. That goes out the window during election campaigns, when mayoral candidates pipe in with their own plans.

But the fact remains decisions about policing are not entirely in the hands of Winnipeg's elected officials. So while crime is clearly the most prevalent concern among the electorate, the people vying for your vote have only limited influence over the manner in which the Winnipeg Police Service responds to crime.

Which is another way of saying beware of policing promises made by mayoral and council candidates.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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