Solution to violent crime isn't more policing, experts and community advocates say

Community advocates and criminal justice experts are saying policing is not the answer Manitoba needs, as Winnipeg and the province grapple with a spike in violent crime.

Pair of Winnipeg gatherings hear similar messages Thursday

Rowan Moyes, an organizer with prison solidarity group Bar None, says Winnipeg needs to pull back from policing and reinvest in community supports. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Community advocates and criminal justice experts are saying policing is not the answer Manitoba needs, as Winnipeg and the province grapple with a spike in violent crime.

Legal experts and grassroots advocates met in two separate gatherings in Winnipeg on Thursday, calling for a different approach in the wake of multiple violent incidents in the city.

At an annual breakfast meeting of the Manitoba Criminal Justice Association at the Fort Garry Hotel, justice experts said policing is the most expensive and time-consuming way of dealing with the problem.

Instead, experts highlighted poverty, social inequities and mental health issues as the main drivers of crime.

Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and chair of the Restorative Justice Association of Manitoba, said systemic change is needed.

"We have unfortunately a society of people who have been damaged by our systems, and so as a society that's on us to own that and actually look at it and solve the problem so that we don't keep seeing these tragedies," she said.

Kate Kehler is the executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the chair of the Restorative Justice Association of Manitoba. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A lack of mental health supports also can contribute to crime rates, said Hygiea Casiano, a forensic and child psychiatrist and professor at the University of Manitoba. Access to supports early on could curb criminality, she said.

"Individuals with mental health issues need to have the identification and the appropriate treatment. In fact, young offenders we know have higher rates of mood, anxiety, psychotic and trauma-related disorders. So let's start with our children," she said.

"Let's support their early lives in order to change their path."

Cut police spending, invest in services: advocates

Later in the day, grassroots advocates met at the bell tower in the North End, calling on the city to make radical changes to policing and redirect resources to community programs like 24-hour safe spaces and improved public housing.

"We're seeing just cuts to health care and social services over and over again," said Rowan Moyes, a harm reduction worker and organizer for the prison-rights group Bar None.

"I am afraid that that is the direction we are continuing to go in, when that is what led us to this problem in the first place." 

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, speaks to media at the bell tower in the North End Thursday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Moyes was joined by more than two dozen community members gathered at the bell tower to call for less spending on police and changes to policing including decommissioning the armoured vehicle, selling the police helicopter and a focus on working with community.

The group also protested the anticipated meeting between Mayor Brian Bowman and Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair, which the minister's office said could be arranged after Bowman called for a meeting between himself, Premier Brian Pallister and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a criminology professor at the University of Winnipeg, said Blair's counsel is not welcome in Winnipeg thanks to his history with carding while chief of police in Toronto.

"The solutions are in our communities. It's not a mystery," said Dobchuk-Land. "We know what works and we know what doesn't work. And we know that policing doesn't work to respond to these instances of violence."

A spokesperson for Blair's office wrote in an email the minister is looking forward to speaking with the mayor at the "first available opportunity," but didn't address questions from CBC about Blair's stance on carding.

"While law enforcement does play a significant role in dissuading and apprehending those who have demonstrated a callous disregard for the law, we understand that we cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem," Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux wrote.

'A war on the poor'

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said at the breakfast that front-line social workers help bridge a divide between the community and police.

"I would argue you need the community and the police to do this," he said. "I strongly we'll believe we'll get through this spike we're dealing with."

Experts believe more emphasis needs to be placed on addressing the root causes of crime, including poverty, social inequality and a lack of access to mental health supports. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Grassroots advocates and legal experts alike said part of the problem is poverty. Three of Manitoba's federal ridings are in the top 10 across Canada for high child poverty rates, Kehler said at the Criminal Justice Association breakfast.

In Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, child poverty is more the norm than the exception. Nearly two-thirds of children in the riding live in poverty, according to Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works toward public education about poverty.

In Winnipeg Centre, four out of 10 children live in poverty, while Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa has a rate of about 33.8 per cent.

"There's a direct correlation with poverty and crime and the long-term effects of poverty and how its deprivation affects development, which leads people into a life of crime," Kehler said.

At the bell tower, Dobchuk-Land said a lack of investment means there aren't enough services to support people when they seek help. She said police need to stop treating things like sleeping outside and panhandling as criminal offences.

"People are poor. They're desperate. They're angry. There's a war on the poor," said Dobchuk-Land.

"Policing is not only not the solution, it's actually part of the problem."

'Turning the Titanic'

The chair of Winnipeg's police board, Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood Coun. Kevin Klein, wrote in an email he couldn't comment on the bell tower event because he wasn't there.

He said the solution to Winnipeg's challenges should come from a shared effort between community groups as well as the city, province and Ottawa.

"To solve a serious problem, we must first identify the problem, accept the problem and do everything possible to solve the problem," he wrote. "That makes this an opportune time for all three levels of government and community groups to collaborate on solutions."

Moving away from policing and punishment isn't easy, Kehler said.

"That is the most expensive and time-consuming way to deal with the problem. We need to get out ahead of it so that we actually avoid these tragedies in the first place," she said.

Increasing policing can make people feel immediately safer, even though it isn't necessarily the most effective approach, and changing people's minds is a tough job, Kehler said.

"It's turning the Titanic," she said. "And we're not going to do that on a dime."

With files from Ahmar Khan


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