Manitoba·Video

Winnipeg police chief open to some defunding of service

Calls for police reform, or a full defunding, are sweeping across North America as part of the protest movement against anti-Black racism and police brutality against people of colour — and Winnipeg's chief is open to change.

A lot would have to change before that can be done safely though, says Danny Smyth

People hold a sign calling for the defunding of police during a Justice 4 Black Lives rally in Winnipeg on Friday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Calls for police reform, or a full defunding, are sweeping across North America as part of the protest movement against anti-Black racism and police brutality against people of colour — and Winnipeg's chief is open to change.

But Danny Smyth said a sudden defunding is not a good idea.

"If you were to rip out a large segment of the budget all at once you would be putting our environment into a more volatile place than it is now," he told reporters on Monday.

What he would like to see is social service agencies receiving an increase in funding to a sustainable level. Then the police service could look at lessening the roles they have in that regard and work instead as supports to those agencies.

Social agencies have had funding cut back "pretty dramatically" over the last decade by various levels of government, downloading a lot of that work to front-line workers like paramedics and police, Smyth said.

NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara speaks at the Justice 4 Black Lives rally in front of the Manitoba legislative building June 5/20. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"Right now we're doing everything from looking for missing kids to dealing with people in crisis because of drug addiction and mental health. I find it interesting that some of those same people [who cut funding to social agencies] are now hitching to the defund [police] rhetoric," he said.

"But I don't think these things are mutually exclusive. I think the opportunity for us lies in partnerships."

WATCH | Winnipeg police chief discusses social services, defunding police:

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said various governments have cut needed funding to community organizations in recent years that he thinks need more support. He doesn't think now is the time to immediately defund the Winnipeg Police Service, he said. 1:08

As examples, Smyth said the police service currently works with grassroots organizations like the Bear Clan or those involved in missing and murdered women. The efforts are led by Indigenous services with police there as supports.

The police service has also "completely changed" the way it approaches concerns around the sex trade and counter-exploitation, he said. Community groups take the lead in outreach work, helping people caught up in the trade.

"And our focus is on the people who exploit them," Smyth said.

Not a simple process

There's always room for reform but caution needs to be in place, he said. It's not as simple as handing off the roles, which could be dangerous.

There are social workers who are part of the police service staff but they won't attend certain calls unless officers are along to ensure their safety.

"Our environment needs to get to a place where we're a little more stable working in concert with each other, then we can talk about withdrawing some police service," Smyth said. 

Coun. Markus Chambers, who is deputy mayor of Winnipeg and the vice-chair of the police board, said the last two weeks have been emotionally difficult due to the violence against Black people and the calls for it to end. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Coun. Kevin Klein, chair of the Winnipeg Police Service, echoed Smyth's comments.

"Defunding policing? You can bring that down but you have to start improving the funding for the community programs," he said.

Minneapolis city council members recently announced their intent to completely disband their city's police force and redirect the money into community-led public safety. It was in that city on May 25 that 46-year-old Black man George Floyd, handcuffed and lying on his stomach, died while a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck.

Floyd pleaded for him to stop but the officer ignored the gasps of "I can't breathe." The death set off protests in Minneapolis that have since swiftly spread to cities around the globe. The four officers who attended Floyd's arrest have since been charged in his death.

'We have to have these conversations'

Coun. Markus Chambers, who is deputy mayor of Winnipeg and the vice-chair of the police board, said the last two weeks have been emotionally difficult due to the violence against Black people and the calls for it to end.

"We have to have these conversations. It's difficult that we're doing it in 2020 when we thought we'd have moved on," said Chambers, who is Black.

"We had the election of a Black president in the United States. Where we are right now, is not there. We need to do better. It's unfortunate it's taken a death to bring us to where we're at right now."

At Justice 4 Black Lives rally in Winnipeg on Friday people carried signs calling for police to be defunded.

Police in general are being painted with the same brush due to some of the things happening in the United States, Smyth said. There are a lot of things that are done quite differently in Canada and the U.S. For instance, nearly every service in Canada has community oversight, he said.

"We train our people to be community-oriented and to be protectors. That's not to say that we don't have bad things happen in our community, we do. We have people that do bad things that we have to respond to and sometimes that requires force," Smyth said.

WATCH | Smyth says Canadian forces facing 'unfair' comparisons to U.S. police services:

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth acknowledged confidence in police forces across North America has been shaken since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis late last month. But he suggested that Canadian forces are subject to more oversight than those in the U.S., and he said the Winnipeg Police Service has shown openness to reforms for years. 2:01
 

"But even when it does, we are accountable through a third-party that investigates that. Many services in the United States don't follow that model."

That police watchdog, the Independent Investigation Unit, came out of feedback from the public and the police service being open to reform, Smyth said, noting the same goes for the police board which provides civilian governance and oversight

"We are always open to feedback from the community and are always open to other change that makes sense to better meet the needs of the community," he said. "There's lots of room for conversation here."

Calls for police reform, or a full defunding, are sweeping across North America as part of the protest movement against anti-Black racism and police brutality against people of colour — and Winnipeg's chief is open to change. 2:24

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