Could Minneapolis model hold fix for Winnipeg's downtown safety problems?

The head of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District says it's taken a decade, but that city has managed to improve downtown safety in ways Winnipeg could learn from.

'Not everything works and not every day is a great day,' but Minneapolis program has impact, says CEO

Winnipeg police block off a section of King Street in an October 2018 file photo. A Manitoba Police Commission report released this week contains many recommendations for improving downtown safety in Winnipeg, including looking to approaches used in Minneapolis. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The head of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District says it's taken more than a decade, but that city has managed to improve downtown safety through a private sector-led initiative that Winnipeg could learn from.

"Whether that's the exact right model for for Winnipeg, it's obviously up for the leaders there to determine. But it's something that we've been able to put in place and it's had some great impact for us," said Steve Cramer.

Looking to Minneapolis is exactly what the Manitoba Police Commission has suggested as well.

The commission's report on safety in downtown Winnipeg was requested by the provincial government in September and released on Tuesday morning. It points to things implemented in Minnesota's largest city, such as a downtown safety communications centre, better co-ordination of downtown foot patrols and closed-circuit TV cameras.

The Minneapolis communications centre is led by Downtown Improvement District staff located inside the police precinct.

Staff monitor the camera network for any issues that surface then dispatch resources for what is needed — whether it be law enforcement or community ambassadors that work on homelessness issues and mental health issues.

"The safety communications centre is a really hub of activity, and from that flows many of the other partnerships and collaborations that we have in place," said Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District.

"It allows us to introduce the right resource to the situation at hand."

Steve Cramer is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District. (Project for Pride in Living)

Finding that balance between law enforcement and other responders has helped deal with some the root issues of the troubles that plagued the city's downtown. But it sometimes requires a combined response, too.

"We really literally have had calls where police officials, along with community agencies that do this outreach and intervention work, are together, co-ordinating their efforts, and that's pretty unusual," Cramer said. 

"It didn't happen overnight … and not everything works and not every day is a great day. But over the course of 10 years, as I've said, we've been able to develop some pretty effective working relationships that pay dividends."

The Minneapolis DID was formed in response to chronic issues in the downtown relating to homelessness, addictions, mental illness, panhandling and associated criminal activity. In 2008, a majority of commercial property owners signed petitions agreeing to its creation.

Commercial property owners pay additional funds which help the DID invest above and beyond what the city spends on safety, greening and cleaning, Cramer explained.

"It's a business-led effort to really enhance the livability and quality of life. The business community is willing to put its resources on the table, to partner with the public sector, so it's been a good experience."

Manitoba Police Commission chair David Asper, speaking at Tuesday's release of the downtown Winnipeg safety report, lauded the Minneapolis effort. A Winnipeg communications centre, working with Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) foot patrols, would be best to deal with safety issues that do not involve crimes, the report says.

While police have a role to play, it says, they shouldn't be the lead agency.

"If the public knew to contact the BIZ instead of 911 to conduct a wellness check, the impact on police and fire paramedic resources could potentially be reduced," the commission's report says.

"Funding for more police foot patrol may eventually be necessary but should be put on hold until the public is made aware of the role that non-police foot patrol can play and to confirm if this alleviates any pressure on police."

Police need to take lead: chief

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth has said he disagrees with the idea that police should not lead the initiative.

"I don't know who would be the lead in that when it comes to the training, the authority, the infrastructure, the communication — we have all of those things to enable the co-ordination and the collaboration," he said, adding it was the police service that first suggested looking to Minneapolis.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth agrees that investments and efforts must be made to deal with root causes of crime, but says 'you can't just cut people's sense of security' by putting police on the sidelines. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

"The lead in that was really the Winnipeg police. Everyone's very interested in exploring that, as are we, but there are some distinctions there between what we can do here in Canada and what they do in the States."

Smyth supports working in collaboration with community agencies but doesn't believe the police should take a back seat.

"We have a pretty good track record with partners, whether it be the Bear Clan in the North End or some of the work that we do, [such as] counter-exploitation with the Winnipeg Outreach Network. We know how to co-ordinate, we know how to work with the community to deal with problems," he said. 

While he agrees that investments and efforts must be made to deal with root causes of crime, "you can't just cut people's sense of security" by putting police on the sidelines, Smyth said.

"Those things mutually benefit one another. It's not an either-or proposition and sometimes I get a little frustrated when people present it that way."

Involve the people

Sel Burrows, the co-ordinator of Point Powerline — a community-driven crime prevention program in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood — also took some exception to the police commission report.

He says it fails to mention the role of engaging downtown residents.

"It's so frustrating for me, because the reality is that whatever we do in crime prevention, if you don't involve the people who actually live in the area, who know who has the guns and know who's dealing the drugs, it will fail," he said. 

Minneapolis's Cramer agrees those voices must be included.

"I think it's essential. The community agencies, community members —  we have a fairly large and growing downtown residential population — they're all key stakeholders. We all have to be at the table," he said.

"The great strength of a downtown is it is a mix of different people coming together. It's not a homogenized environment, and so we embrace that."

With files from Aviva Jacob


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