Stop police militarization and prison expansion, Winnipegger says

Manitoba must turn away from militarizing the police and expanding prisons, focusing instead on building communities through poverty reduction and meaningful employment.

Community organizer Matthew Brett pans Winnipeg Police Service's $343K armoured vehicle purchase

In the spring of 2016, the Winnipeg Police Service will get a GURKHA tactical vehicle, from Terradyne Armored Vehicles. (Winnipeg Police Service)

The purchase of a $343,000 armoured vehicle by the Winnipeg Police Service is only the latest in a string of terrible decisions by politicians at all levels. Manitoba must turn away from militarizing the police and expanding prisons, focusing instead on building communities through poverty reduction and meaningful employment.

"Do we want no-knock search warrants where police show up with this thing on your front lawn, 12 people with basically machine guns jump out, they kick in your door, and if you're holding something in your hand when they come through the door you could be shot? That's what's happening in the U.S.," Winnipeg criminologist Kevin Walby said. "We're quite a ways behind but we're … at that fork in the road."

This vehicle can be added to the very costly bill for Winnipeg's police helicopter — $3.5 million to purchase and $1.5 million to operate in 2013. Montrealers were furious to learn that it cost more than $2,000 per hour to keep two helicopters in the sky over the student strikes of 2012 for a few days, yet the Winnipeg buzzard is airborne almost nightly in the summer.

Useless eyesore

The helicopter is a largely useless eyesore that buzzes over city, irritating people enjoying a cool summer evening rather providing safety. The helicopter last made the news because the pilots turned on the loudspeaker accidentally while talking about oral sex.

The real problem, on top of this militarization of the police, is Manitoba's rapidly expanding prison infrastructure. The Auditor General of Manitoba reported that the province has spent $182 million to increase jail capacity and will need another $600 million to meet projected prison population growth.

Increasing spending on prison expansion and militarizing the police does nothing to address the root causes of crime and little to solve the problem.

Tackle poverty

We must address poverty in a systemic way and that means facing our history of colonialism and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Fortunately, there are existing solutions that need to be scaled up and supported. Necessary first steps would include returning or selling the new armoured vehicle immediately, grounding and selling the police helicopter and immediately stopping all prison expansion in Manitoba.

The savings generated from these steps alone would allow for a massive infusion in poverty reduction strategies. Where would that money go? A motion put forward by Manitoba Green Retrofit at the Community Economic Development Network Manitoba policy summit just weeks ago calls on the province to tackle poverty and to offer employment to appropriate offenders, working on retrofitting homes, municipal and provincial contract work and building sustainable infrastructure.

Opportunity to change course

This alternative comes at a fraction of the cost of incarceration, resulting in millions of saved dollars that could be redirected toward poverty reduction and breaking the cycle of repeat offenders.

The province, city and municipalities are at a turning point, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives releasing their State of the Inner City Report 2015 this week, followed shortly by the Make Poverty History provincial campaign launch on Dec. 15.

The province and society has an opportunity to change course. We can either continue to militarize the police and expand our prisons, or we can address the root causes of crime by tackling poverty and offering meaningful livelihoods to marginalized populations.

The provincial New Democrats, with all their serious faults, belong to the party most receptive to this course of action. But it will take a groundswell of support to shift our culture away from policing and prisons toward poverty reduction and social development. 

Matthew Brett is a community organizer based in Winnipeg.