Why the 'tough on crime' approach won't work to end violence in Winnipeg

The response from many to crime in Winnipeg has been calls for more "tough on crime" approaches and an increase in funding for police. But Marcia Anderson and Michael Redhead Champagne say we need to think about prevention, by focusing on factors that put people and communities at a higher risk of violence.

Prevention relies on focusing on factors that put people, communities at higher risk of violence

A focus on 'tough on crime' approaches to issues in Winnipeg ignores the root causes of those issues, say the authors. Relying on 'policing alone, refusing services to people who use drugs, and telling people to "just say no" is not going to work.' (Gorynvd/Shutterstock)

People who sell drugs, people who use drugs and people who participate in gang activity have been blamed for the increase in violence in Winnipeg in 2019.

The response from many has been calls for more "tough on crime" approaches and an increase in funding for police. 

When we are talking about significant public investments, though, shouldn't we be asking about how likely this approach is to reduce the harms from drug use and prevent violence? 

How does this approach align with the stated needs and proposed solutions from the communities most impacted?

Police have an important role to play, but what they are doing when they are on the streets matters. Police presence can help prevent violence when it is focused on building relationships in the community, and when active measures to reduce racism in policing are in place. 

However, the Winnipeg Police Service has responded to the recent spike in violence by decreasing public access to stations in the north, east and west, and by redirecting officers to general patrol from Project Devote (dedicated to solving MMIWG cases) and the community relations unit, which focuses on initiatives like the Block Parent Program, Citizens on Patrol, crime prevention, diversity relations and Neighbourhood Watch programs.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth announced a redistribution of police resources on Nov. 8. 'The plan to redistribute officers will ensure the police continue to be overwhelmed and overworked, with tense relationships in the community,' say Marcia Anderson and Michael Redhead Champagne. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

We have been in circles and have listened to members of the police speak constantly about the importance of community involvement to prevent crime, and the importance of community supports for people who are struggling so the police don't end up being overloaded. 

Well, the plan to redistribute officers will ensure the police continue to be overwhelmed and overworked, with tense relationships in the community, until at least mid-January 2020, when the plan will be revisited. 

A police- and criminal justice-focused approach will disproportionately affect black, brown and Indigenous people, those living in poverty, people living in the inner city and, of course, people who use drugs — all of whom are traditionally overrepresented in the justice system.

It has been well established that this "war on drugs"-type approach will not increase public safety, prevent violence or reduce the harms from drug use. This approach continues the colonial crisis that has been affecting Indigenous people, which we wrote about in 2018

Leaving so much of the city and provincial responses to policing alone, refusing services to people who use drugs, and telling people to "just say no" is not going to work. 

Risk factors for violence

The World Health Organization Violence Prevention Alliance uses an ecological framework to highlight the interactions between factors at the individual, relationship, community and societal level that result in some people or communities being at a higher risk of violence. 

These include factors like adverse childhood experiences, substance use, personal relationships (which may be protective or risk factors), income, unemployment, socioeconomic inequality and the availability of weapons, among others.

The Violence Prevention Alliance recommends 10 scientifically credible violence prevention strategies, including:

  • Increasing safe, stable and nurturing relationships between children and their parents/ caregivers.
  • Reducing availability and misuse of alcohol.
  • Reducing access to lethal means.
  • Improving life skills and enhancing opportunities for children and youth.
  • Promoting gender equality and empowering women.
  • Changing cultural norms that support violence.
  • Improving criminal justice systems so they are fair, efficient and reliable.
  • Improving social welfare systems and providing support to families in need.
  • Reducing social distance between conflicting groups.
  • Reducing economic inequality and concentrated poverty.

We need a better multilevel response and most of these 10 scientifically credible strategies are ones we have already worked hard on as Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, as well as 13 Moons Harm Reduction, and along with our partners at Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Kani Kanichihk and the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network. 

A better response

In 2018 at the Community Matters Conference (resources and report available here) these organizations worked together to learn about solutions that have worked well in Iceland. 

The goal of the Iceland approach is to prevent or delay the onset of youth substance use which also results in reducing crime and reducing harms from drug use. They focus on five key strategies:

  • Local community building and the collection and use of local data.
  • Flooding youth with opportunities for recreation.
  • Actively engaging and supporting the role of parents/caring adults in the lives of youth.
  • Encouraging a curfew, and after the curfew, encouraging youth to be in safe indoor spaces.
  • Basing their approach on science.

The current discourse around violence and drug use in Winnipeg is preventing us from being able to take an Indigenist public health, community-led approach that's rooted in the real causes and needs, as opposed to the perceived causes and fears. 

The approaches that youth leaders and community organizers have been shouting from megaphones for since Meet Me At the Bell Tower started eight years ago are aligned with the WHO Violence Prevention Alliance Strategies and are backed by science. 

Treat violence as a public health issue

If we continue to attribute the violence to drug dealers and gangs and other stigmatizing discourses, then we will falsely promote the idea that policing and tough-on-crime approaches are the answer, despite limited evidence that they will be effective and substantial evidence that they will cause harm.

If we understand harmful substance use and violence as rooted in societal and community environments that are unequal and unhealthy, with disrupted relationships as a result of colonization, racism and poverty, then we can take a public health and evidence-based approach. 

This includes reducing income inequality; investing in community, neighborhood and school environments that promote meaning, belonging, purpose and hope; funding recreation and safe spaces for youth; and resourcing community-led organizations that support kinship, positive relationship building and strong cultural identities.

We are going to do this by listening to people most directly impacted by harms related to drug use and violence, treating violence as the public health concern it is, and working with systems to beef up supports to families so they don't have to live in the circumstances that cause tragedies any longer.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Marcia Anderson is Cree-Saulteaux and grew up in the North End of Winnipeg. As a physician she practises both internal medicine and public health, and is a faculty member at the University of Manitoba. Michael Champagne and the Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!) started Meet Me At the Bell Tower in 2011 in Winnipeg's North End. The weekly event brings community members together to combat gangs, poverty, violence and youth suicide in their neighbourhood.