Foot patrols, stricter panhandling laws could help downtown Winnipeg safety, report says

A new downtown safety communications centre, better co-ordination of downtown foot patrols and closed-circuit TV cameras could improve safety in downtown Winnipeg, a Manitoba Police Commission report says.

Report fails to address social issues that are the root of crime, says NDP's Nahanni Fontaine

A report from Manitoba's police commission addresses safety in downtown Winnipeg. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

A new downtown safety communications centre, better co-ordination of downtown foot patrols and closed-circuit TV cameras could improve safety in downtown Winnipeg, a Manitoba Police Commission report says.

The report on downtown safety, which was requested by the provincial government in September, was released on Tuesday morning.

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen called it a "road map" for a complex problem.

He was joined at a news conference by the Manitoba Police Commission, the Downtown Safety Partnership and True North Sports and Entertainment. The Winnipeg Police Service was not invited to participate and city officials weren't there, either.

The report contains a list of initial recommendations for ways to improve downtown safety, including enforcement of panhandling laws, better co-ordination of Downtown Business Improvement Zone foot patrols and increased outdoor lighting.

The commission recommends exploring Minneapolis's Downtown Improvement District model, a private sector-led initiative that has created a downtown safety communications centre that's separate from the police service.

The communications centre there is a collaboration between different social service organizations that provide street outreach downtown and communicate with each other using an app.

Winnipeg police commission chair David Asper said staff at a communications centre here, including Downtown BIZ foot patrols, could deal with safety issues that do not involve crimes and thus could complement what police do.

The report says police have a role to play, but they shouldn't be the lead agency in a downtown safety strategy.

It also recommends focusing on community health and wellness by continuing to support homelessness and poverty initiatives in the city, and considering additional funding for such initiatives.

Cullen didn't commit to any additional funding for any of the report's recommendations.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, left, and police commission chair David Asper speak at the news conference on downtown safety Tuesday. (John Einarson/CBC)

Mark Chipman — the chair of True North Sports and Entertainment, and a member of the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance — said it's important for the private sector to be involved in public safety.

"I think we've come to understand that this is not necessarily a problem that [lies] at the feet of government in and of itself, or the police service," he said.

"We've explored some other communities that have very thoughtfully combined the resources and efforts of the private and public sector to effectively take on the issue of community wellness and safety."

Asper said panhandling was addressed in the report because road safety in Winnipeg is top of mind for citizens.

"We heard that traffic, actually, is a problem with panhandling, when panhandlers are in the middle of traffic," he said. 

"Should the Highway Traffic Act be a tool in how we manage people walking in traffic and causing danger?"

Rules against panhandling are currently under a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge that argues they're unconstitutional.

The National Anti-Poverty Organization is suing the city to strike down the "captive audience" portion of Winnipeg's Obstructive Solicitation Bylaw, which prohibits panhandling at bus stops, banks, parking lots and outside vehicles. The organization argues the bylaw violates freedom of speech, liberty and equality provisions in the Charter.

Mayor alerted about release

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth took issue with the lack of municipal representation at the press conference. He said he was only given a copy of the report on Friday and wasn't invited to participate Tuesday. 

He said the report is largely redundant.

"Many of the recommendations are initiatives that the [Winnipeg Police Service] and the City of Winnipeg have been engaged in with other downtown stakeholders for some time," he said in a statement.

"Other recommendations require legislative changes that have been previously identified but not acted upon."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, though, said he wasn't concerned there was no one representing the city at the downtown safety announcement. The premier alerted him about the pending release in a recent meeting, Bowman said.

The report aligns with some of the things the city is already working on, the mayor said, and he intends to go through its recommendations more thoroughly in the coming days.

"We'll look to play a constructive role," Bowman said. "We all want to see public safety improve, as well as perceptions of public safety downtown."

Report draws criticism

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the report seems more concerned with sanitizing downtown than boosting safety.

He also said public safety isn't something that should be tackled by the private sector.

"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Chipman and for David Asper, but these are not problems that are going to be solved by the private sector. It's not their job," Lamont said.

"We have a mental health crisis, we have a homelessness crisis, we have a meth crisis and a public safety crisis. These are all public — they're supposed to be solved by the government."

Smyth agrees. He said the statement that police shouldn't be the lead agency on a safety strategy came as a surprise.

"The WPS remains committed to downtown safety and will continue to advance the strategy outlined in our strategic plan."

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine says the downtown safety report isn't addressing the root causes of crime. (John Einarson/CBC)

New Democrat Nahanni Fontaine, the MLA for St. Johns, said Winnipeg's recent crime wave seems to stem from social issues that the recommendations in the report fail to address.

It's great the report was produced in partnership with local businesses, but it didn't include the same level of input from front-line community groups or the City of Winnipeg, Fontaine said.

"We all want to be safe downtown," she said.

"The fundamental way that you ensure that Manitobans are safe is that we're dealing with those root causes, and we did not see that today."

Broadening the conversation

The province also asked the police commission to create six community committees to discuss public safety, including outside Winnipeg, Cullen said.

"We want to make sure we're engaging all Manitobans," Cullen said.

"We can track results and we can make informed decisions as we move forward."

A report from Manitoba's police commission addresses safety in downtown Winnipeg, but some question whether its focus on public-private partnerships is well-founded. 2:22

With files from Sean Kavanagh and Bartley Kives


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