MMIWG advocate criticizes 'disheartening' decision to pull Winnipeg police from exploited persons task force
'You need to look at what is fuelling all this violence,' says Hilda Anderson-Pyrz
An advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people is questioning the recent announcement that Winnipeg police will be pulled from a task force assigned to cases involving vulnerable people, in order to focus on the city's recent spate of violent crime.
"Pulling resources from an area that's really critical to bringing justice to families is very disheartening to hear," said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, the manager of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls unit.
"It makes you, I would say, lose hope and question, 'Does my loved one matter?'"
On Friday, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said investigators will be reassigned from Project Devote — a partnership with the RCMP focused on resolving cold cases related to exploited people — to general patrol and investigative units.
The shift comes as police are dealing with what Smyth described as an "alarming" level of violence, including 40 homicides so far this year — 11 in the 30 days from the start of October to the beginning of November alone.
But Anderson-Pyrz said realigning resources isn't an effective approach to the problem, because one area will always suffer as a result.
"It's a really big issue that we're looking at. It's not only realigning police resources. You need to look at what is fuelling all this violence," she said.
"We need to look at the root causes of it, and address those root causes and adequately support community-based organizations who provide different types of supports and resources to individuals."
At a news conference Friday, Smyth argued the changes are necessary, but will be temporary.
"We're going to pull back temporarily so they can meet the backlog of homicides now," Smyth said.
Staffing levels will also be altered in major crimes, station duty, traffic and community relations, affecting a total of 74 officers across divisions.
"We can't keep scrambling the way we have been. We have never had this many homicides in such a short period of time. It has strained the physical abilities of the people there."
City councillor Kevin Klein, who chairs the city's police board, stood behind Smyth's decision.
"I think today shows the service is doing everything they can to put the resources where they're needed, and now you're going to see a bit of an impact of that," he said Friday.
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth announces changes Friday:
But Anderson-Pyrz said she doesn't think taking resources away from Project Devote to shift to other departments will ultimately improve safety in Winnipeg.
"Protecting the city is critically important. But also, finding the perpetrator is equally important, because if you don't find the perpetrator who's harmed these loved ones, they're still out there. So it's kind of like, how do you balance those two?" she said.
'Under-protected and over-policed'
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg, also criticized the changes on Friday, saying the police service is "bullying" the city to get more police funding.
She said more police funding does not reduce violent crime, and that money needs to be redirected to public housing and safe spaces for drug users.
It's a suggestion echoed by Anderson-Pyrz.
"Indigenous women and girls and two-spirited and gender diverse people are already under-protected and they're over-policed," she said.
"If they truly want to reassure the Indigenous community that the lives of Indigenous women and girls and two-spirited and gender diverse people matter, they wouldn't be making this kind of move."
Anderson-Pyrz said the move also makes her question the sincerity of the police force's commitment to reconciliation, especially after women across the country raised issues during the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls about how they've been treated by police.
During the inquiry, Winnipeg police Chief Smyth also apologized to Indigenous women for how they've been treated by police.
"They shared their truth, and policing came up in every territory and province that the national inquiry visited," she said. "It's just like, what did that apology really mean?"
Anderson-Pyrz said she's worried the police care less about missing and murdered Indigenous people now that the national inquiry has ended.
"The lens of the national inquiry is no longer shining on the police because the inquiry is over, but there is a call for justice that needs to be implemented," she said.
For now, city police will be pulling back three of its teams — six Winnipeg officers — from the nationwide task force, according to Smyth.
"If you've heard me speak on the topic of missing and murdered, you know that I'm dedicated to that. And not just in investigating historic homicides. Counter exploitation, missing persons, we put a lot of thought and partnership into that with the NGOs in the community," Smyth said on Friday.
"We are not walking away from Project Devote."
With files from Erin Brohman and Darren Bernhardt