Winnipeg Police Association should step back from politics after campaign appearance, researchers say
Police union president says he wants to hear what candidates have to say about public safety
The appearance of two Winnipeg police union executives at a campaign event for a mayoral candidate risks compromising their role as impartial enforcers of the law, some criminologists and labour relations experts say.
Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin and vice-president George Van Mackelbergh made an appearance at an event for Jenny Motkaluk as she announced her plan to put more police officers in schools.
At the event on Tuesday, Sabourin said he wasn't there to endorse Motkaluk, but rather the police association is simply interested in what candidates have to say about public safety, which he says isn't a priority for current Mayor Brian Bowman.
When asked if the union is taking more interest in civic politics, Sabourin said: "I think that's a fair assessment."
In an interview later that day, however, Sabourin pushed back against the perception that the police association was taking a more active role in politics.
"We're just being there to be visible and to hear what the candidates have to say, because public safety is obviously a big concern, and the current mayor feels that pet projects are more important than public safety," he said.
Appearance of impartiality
While Sabourin says he is simply supporting initiatives he believes are in the interest of public safety, University of Manitoba criminology professor Frank Cormier says that is not the job of the head of the police association.
"His job is to worry first and foremost about the interests of his members," Cormier said. "So those don't necessarily have to be different things, but we need to keep in mind that they are not necessarily the same thing."
Members of the public might not be able to tell the difference between someone speaking on behalf of the police association and someone speaking on behalf of the Winnipeg Police Service itself, Cormier said.
By appearing to favour one candidate over another, Sabourin runs the risk of eroding public confidence in the police, Cormier said.
"And that's the real danger, because we're seeing across North America — it's not as bad in Canada as it is in the United States — but all the research shows that public confidence in the police and public trust in the police is declining," he said.
Although the Winnipeg Police Association did not endorse any candidates in the 2014 mayoral election, it supported the incumbent candidacy of Sam Katz in 2006 and 2010. Former president Mike Sutherland lent his voice to a robocall praising Katz' record on public safety in 2010.
Police budgets central issue
He blasted what he called Bowman's cuts to the police service. The 2018 budget actually increased funding for police by $4 million, but Sabourin said the funding isn't enough to allow police to keep up with rising call volumes and violent crime rates.
"We are completely a responsive police service right now, because we don't have the resources to be proactive, and it is proactive policing that actually reduces the crime," he said.
The central issue is whether cities should be putting more financial resources into policing, said U of M sociology and labour studies assistant Prof. David Camfield.
"The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently put out their alternative municipal budget, which I think provided quite cogent reasons for reducing spending on policing," he said.
The alternative budget says policing costs are the biggest departmental expenditure for the City of Winnipeg, at 27 per cent — 85 per cent of which is for salaries and benefits. Between 2010 and 2015, total expenditures on policing increased from $191.5 million to $261 million — a 36 per cent increase in five years.
"It's never-ending. We've seen lots of other jurisdictions with more and more money being poured into policing and this doesn't actually create a healthier society."
Police unions a 'separate animal'
Increasing involvement by police in politics could shift the balance of politics in the city, Camfield said.
"I just think that the more police associations get involved in politics, the more it directly supports the most conservative, right-wing political elements, candidates and forces," he said.
Other public sector unions, such as the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, have also taken on active political roles. These unions, however, play a much different role in society than police, Cormier said.
"Police officers are given extraordinary powers that other workers don't have, powers to detain and powers to arrest. They are armed. They have powers to use force, up to and including deadly force.
"So the powers that are imparted to police really makes police organizations a separate animal when it comes to the importance of always maintaining the appearance and the actual practice of impartiality."
Cormier said criminologists across North America increasingly have pushed for police associations to step back from politics and focus on their core mandates.
"So negotiating salaries, managing grievances, taking care of worker safety and staffing and things like that, and moving back away from the politicization, because it's seen as carrying some very real risks."
With files from Sean Kavanagh