Manitoba·Analysis

While the city demands action on crime, politicians promise more talk

Winnipeg police homicide investigators can barely keep up with their workloads, liquor store employees are so freaked out they're asking for panic rooms and emergency-ward staff are getting attacked by violent methamphetamine patients. But don't worry, authorities are holding talks.

Winnipeg is still waiting for co-ordinated response to retail theft, meth addictions

Liquor stores are the latest front in Winnipeg's crime woes. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

When Chief Danny Smyth says the Winnipeg Police Service can't respond to all its calls, he's not telling tall tales. On many nights, urgent requests for service in this city exceed the capacity of police patrols.

When Mayor Brian Bowman says the City of Winnipeg doesn't have any more money to provide police, he's not pleading poverty. The costs of operating the city are rising faster than its revenue, making it tough to maintain services at existing levels. 

When social activists complain governments haven't done enough to address the root causes of crime, they're not spouting ideology. The gap between rich and poor is vast in Winnipeg, creating unequal access to education, health, housing, recreation and other forms of support that ensure people are happy, productive and feel a sense of belonging.

When Premier Brian Pallister suggests individuals who commit crimes are responsible for their actions no matter where they come from, he's not an outlier. The idea that citizens have control over their decisions — what sociologists call agency — has broad support in this society.

And when mental-health advocates suggest some individuals who commit crime can not take responsibility for their actions, they're not being soft. People suffering from addictions, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or the inter-generational trauma inflicted by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop require treatment.

Winnipeg was disturbed by the killing of three-year-old boy, who was stabbed multiple times while sleeping in his Winnipeg home. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

At first blush, these statements may seem contradictory. But they're all entirely valid.

There's no single factor that determines the prevalence and severity of crime in Winnipeg. Likewise, there's no simple solution for reducing it or responding to it.

The only thing that's obvious in Winnipeg is absolutely no one's happy with the status quo, which includes a rash of brazen retail thefts, a record-setting pace of homicides and a glut of calls relating to methamphetamine addiction.

To be clear, these are separate issues. Homicide is a near-random act that usually victimizes the most vulnerable people. Methamphetamine addiction is a mental-health issue closely tied to socioeconomic disadvantage. Liquor store robberies are premeditated and, according to police, are fuelled by the use of booze as a form of criminal currency.

Together, they've overtaxed the police and led to urgent calls for action. But the collective official response could be described as less than urgent, and not just because of the contrasting perspectives on crime in Winnipeg.

In short, the city and province don't appear to be on the same page.

A frame of video of an unprovoked attack on employees at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart. CBC News has blurred the faces of those involved in the incident. (CBC )

The last time Winnipeg was so focused on crime was 2005-2006, when the killing of Phil Haiart in the West End led to a police-deployment surge called Operation Clean Sweep.

The police operation was credited with reducing gang activity in the West End. It was also derided for damaging relations between police and inner-city residents.

Nonetheless, this experience left Winnipeg with a more robust street-crime unit as well as a renewed police commitment to community engagement. What stands out, in retrospect, was the co-operation between the city and province, in spite of the fact former premier Gary Doer and former mayor Sam Katz weren't the best of buddies.

Today, Winnipeg's crime issues are more widespread than they were 13 years ago. But there's an even frostier relationship between the city and province.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the two entities do not appear to be engaged in a co-ordinated response to crime.

The city is in the midst of a pre-budget exercise that raised the improbable prospect of reducing police resources. This is unlikely to happen when the actual budget is tabled in the new year.

City council is also engaged in a fight with the Winnipeg Police Association over changes to the police pension. Both are the direct result of flat overall provincial funding for the City of Winnipeg.

The province, meanwhile, has asked David Asper and the Manitoba Police Commission to figure out the best way to improve downtown safety. This follows up on a $10-million election-campaign promise and a declaration by Pallister he doesn't feel safe shopping at Mountain Equipment Co-Op.

In other words, the city is looking at capping police spending and the province is concerned about the perception of safety for downtown shoppers while Winnipeg police homicide investigators can barely keep up with their workloads. Liquor store employees are so freaked out they're asking for panic rooms and emergency-ward staff are getting attacked by violent methamphetamine patients.

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth expressed exasperation with all levels of government over their response to the meth problem earlier this year. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Both municipal and provincial politicians are adept at pointing out they're committed to some form of action. Pallister's government uses press releases to point out incremental increases to mental health care funding. Mayor Bowman called for a summit with the prime minister.

The main concern appears to be appearing to be doing something, anything, about crime.

Take, for example, a Thursday press conference where Justice Minister Cliff Cullen announced the province is doing something voters would expect it to be doing: Talking to other authorities about crime.

At the Manitoba Legislative building, Cullen announced the formation of an "operations table" to deal with retail theft.

"You get the right people at the table to talk about policing and public safety and effectively deal with the situation you see before us," he told reporters, referring to Winnipeg police, the RCMP, provincial prosecutors and Liquor & Lotteries officials.

To be clear, talks need to happen. But when senior government officials hold press conferences just to say they're talking to each other, the public earns the right to wonder – what on earth took them so long?

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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