Morale among Winnipeg police plummets in wake of constable's death, officers say
Chief Danny Smyth under fire from officers, union as social movements demand police reforms
The recent death of a police officer has pushed morale in the Winnipeg Police Service to what some officers describe as the worst they've ever seen, and they blame the service's chief for allowing it to happen.
Numerous members of the service who spoke to CBC say the officer took his own life, in part, because he was profoundly shaken by the pressure and criticism brought on by the social movements to reform and defund police services.
Chief Danny Smyth is also being criticized by the union representing the city's police officers, which blames his leadership for a "serious morale problem" in the service.
Anger at Smyth came to a head when he did not quickly communicate concern for the death of the constable who killed himself or attend the first of two memorial processions arranged by officers.
"I've never seen morale worse," said one officer. CBC has agreed not to name the officers who spoke about the morale issues in the force.
"It is indescribable, really. It's affecting the workplace issues, productivity."
Smyth was involved in a procession of police vehicles in downtown Winnipeg on Wednesday evening to mark the officer's death, but did not attend an earlier memorial event.
"All he had to do was show up," said an officer.
There is also criticism Smyth and senior management have done little to communicate to the rank and file members about the impact of the Black Lives Matter and defund the police movements.
"For the guy that took his own life, the lack of executive support during Black Lives Matter crushed him," one officer told CBC. "There was no support."
"Every guy I know [in the WPS] wants … [Smyth] to quit or be fired," said an officer.
Challenges in 'unprecedented times': Smyth
Smyth acknowledges the stress on police is very high, and the constable's death made circumstances even more acute.
"Certainly [it is] a challenging time for our organization and for our members. We don't deal often with suicide and this was one of those occasions," Smyth told CBC in a Thursday interview.
"It was a delicate thing, you know, trying to balance communicating with our general membership and really meeting the needs of the family."
Smyth said the family of the officer who died received support from behavioural health staff and the police service's chaplaincy program.
"The decision I made in this case was to delay my messaging a little bit, to really just help the family come to terms and continue to come to terms with this tragedy," he said.
Smyth says he understands members of the service have been under stress in the wake of calls to significantly change how policing is done.
"There is no doubt being constantly criticized and being under regular attack over time has a contributory nature to it. It just accumulates the stress that our members are dealing with," Smyth said.
He said the police service has heard the calls from social organizations to reform policing and says that work is underway, but it may not please everyone.
"I do think we're a progressive service. And I think if some people took the time to learn about what we are doing, I think they would see that … [it] just doesn't fit into their narrative."
However, he says communicating with his own officers about how the service is changing and how to cope with the pressure is hampered by the pandemic, which keeps officers from gathering in ways they normally would.
"These are unprecedented times, and I think that some of that anger and frustration that you are seeing is coming out of the stress that they are experiencing and their helplessness in being able to deal with it," Smyth said.
"They are looking for me to take on a stronger role and it's been challenging because I can't take it on the way we are accustomed to gathering."
Smyth, who has asked for a two-year extension of his contract as chief, told CBC he's not ready to leave the position yet.
'Lack of leadership': union
The union representing Winnipeg's police officers weighed in on Smyth's leadership with a damning letter to its members.
"We believe, based on conversations with you, our members, that a serious morale problem is growing within the Winnipeg Police Service, and this problem stems from a lack of leadership," Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin wrote, pointing the blame at Mayor Brian Bowman, city council "and especially the current chief of police."
The union is planning to get an "independent assessment of [the] state of the morale of our members" and present options to both the police executive and the Winnipeg Police Board.
St. Norbert-Seine River Coun. Markus Chambers, who chairs the police board, told CBC News he's heard about both the growing morale issues at the service and how the recent death of the officer has exacerbated those issues.
"What I am hearing is that morale is low. I'm hearing that there are issues with respect to leadership styles that certainly has been made mention to us, as a board," Chambers said.
"As a board, we are very much concerned."
Chambers said his heart goes out to the family of the officer who died. He feels the board has to balance the need for the police service to change while still recognizing the valuable role it plays.
"We may not agree politically on some of these issues in terms of defunding and removing parts of the budget or completely abolishing police, but I think what we can agree with is that these are human individuals that are out there putting their lives on the line on a daily basis," Chambers said.
WATCH | Winnipeg police officer say morale at a low:
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).
If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.