'We need some relief': New stats show rising violent, property crime rates in Winnipeg
Increased demands put strain on police officers, chief says
Winnipeg's police chief sounded a dire note as he released the city's latest batch of crime statistics, saying increasing demands on emergency services driven largely by meth use are taking a serious toll on front-line officers.
"The status quo is putting tremendous strain on police and paramedic and, frankly, hospital and emergency departments. We need some relief sooner or later," Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said at a news conference Monday.
Smyth and Mayor Brian Bowman released the Winnipeg information on the same day Statistics Canada released national crime data, which included a six per cent increase in the crime severity index in Manitoba, while the crime severity index for Canada only increased two per cent.
Violent crime remained 18 per cent higher than the average for the previous five years (although there was no increase from the previous year), according to Winnipeg police numbers. Firearms offences rose 45 per cent from 2017 to 2018.
There was a "startling" 19 per cent increase in the number of property crimes from 2017 to 2018, with increases recorded in every property crime category except for arson, Smyth said.
Although 2018 was an average year for homicides with 22, Winnipeg has already surpassed that number with 25 so far in 2019, foreshadowing what is expected to be a stark increase in the city's crime severity index. Statistics Canada calculates the crime severity index by looking at both the number and severity of crimes committed.
Last week, an internal memo from Smyth said officers are overwhelmed by rising violent crime and the demands of dealing with people in the grips of drug addiction.
Both Bowman and Smyth on Monday expressed frustration with the pace of action from the province.
Although Smyth is pleased with some of the initiatives taken by Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, he hasn't had an opportunity to talk with Health Minister Cameron Friesen to discuss possible solutions, he said.
"We can't wait for elections to come and go. We need immediate action now," Bowman said.
Province taking action
A spokesperson for the province's health department pointed out that the deputy health minister co-chaired the Illicit Drug Task Force, which included the other co-chair Michael Jack, who is the city's corporate services officer, and several members of the Winnipeg Police Service.
Friesen's office hasn't received a request for a meeting with Smyth, a spokesperson for the health minister said. Both Cullen and Friesen met with Bowman last fall to discuss the drug problem, the spokesperson said.
The province has already implemented a number of recommendations from the drug task force as well as the Virgo mental health and addictions report from last year, the justice minister told reporters in a conference call Monday.
"We don't like to see these statistics on the rise. These statistics do fluctuate from year to year and obviously we're not going through a positive cycle right now."
Steps the province has taken to address the drug problem include introducing Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics, which have now provided services to 1,100 people, Cullen said. They've also increased the number of beds at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba and are in the process of adding more long-term withdrawal beds in Winnipeg and Brandon.
The provincial government also recently made legislative changes enabling qualified people at hospitals like the Health Sciences Centre to transfer patients out of police care and into the facilities, Cullen said.
"We'll certainly work with Manitoba Health in terms of addressing any capacity issues that are out there," he said. "There's no silver bullet to [the problem] and it's going to take a comprehensive approach to to address it."
Statistics Canada's crime figures include a 77 per cent increase in the rate of shoplifting under $5,000 in Winnipeg.
In 2018, almost 26 per cent of all thefts were from liquor stores, Smyth said.
Smyth called on all three levels of government to implement proposed solutions, such as those contained in the Illicit Drug Task Force report released last month.
"Calls for service are high and we need to be asking ourselves if police are the right resource to respond," Bowman said.
Calls to the communications centre went up 11 per cent from 2017 to 2018, and most calls relate to domestic disturbances, well-being checks and what police term calls for assistance.
Between half and two-thirds of all calls for service are related to families and individuals dealing with some kind of crisis involving mental health or addictions, Bowman said.
Governments need to reduce the "downloading" of demands onto police "so they can do only what they can do, enforce our laws, arrest gang members and investigate crimes."
Civilian police service staff are also feeling burnt out because of the demands, Smyth said.
"I've lost a lot of good people in the [communications] centre who have been unable to cope with the tremendous stress that comes with managing that volume of calls," he said.
Spike in used needles
There's an increase in the number of needles being found on Winnipeg streets, according to the Bear Clan Patrol.
The patrol's co-founder James Favel said so far this year the patrol has picked up about 65,000 needles.
"It's disgusting. It's scary. There's schools right around this area and there's kids going by," said Vivian Ketchum, a central area resident, who said she picked up over 700 needles alone on Sunday around a back lane she calls 'needle alley' behind William Avenue by Isabel Street.
Smyth said in the last few years, 19 police officers have been poked by needles.
In the last week, officers have dealt with a homicide, a police shooting, an in-custody death, a stolen police cruiser and a public suicide attempt, nearly all of which involved drugs, Smyth said.
Smyth wants detox centres' capacity increased so police and paramedics can spend less time waiting in emergency rooms. He also repeated his call for a short-term detox centre to hold people in the throes of addiction.
- A previous version of this story said the province's health minister co-chaired the Illicit Drug Task Force. In fact, it was the deputy health minister who co-chaired the task force alongside the city’s corporate services officer.Jul 22, 2019 9:45 PM CT
With files from Austin Grabish