Manitoba

Winnipeg police pull out of Project Devote, create new model for investigating MMIWG cases

Winnipeg police are pulling out of Project Devote, a task force for missing and murdered people, but Chief Danny Smyth says it's for the better.

New model has community-based focus, incorporating grassroots organizations, police chief says

Myrna Letandre, 36, went missing in October 2006. Her remains were found in 2013 buried in the foundation of a rooming house in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood. (Family photo)

Winnipeg police are pulling out of Project Devote, a task force for missing and murdered people, but Chief Danny Smyth says it's for the better.

The city's police service is creating its own model to streamline and strengthen investigations into MMIWG cases, he said, such as those of Amber Guiboche and Crystal Shannon Saunders.

Guiboche was 20 when she was last seen in November 2010 in the William Avenue and Isabel Street area. There's been no sign of her since.

Saunders, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, was 24 when she was last seen in the late evening hours of April 18, 2007, in Winnipeg's West End. Her body was found the next day near St. Ambroise, Man., about 80 kilometres northwest of the city.

Devote was a partnership between Winnipeg police and the RCMP, focused on resolving cold cases related to exploited people, including missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

But it had little success. In nine years, just one case was closed.

"It's been frustrating. We haven't solved a lot of the files," Smyth said. "I think they've been reviewed a great deal, but we haven't cleared very many of them."

WATCH | Police Chief Danny Smyth's candid answers on Project Devote:

Winnipeg police pull out of Project Devote

CBC News Manitoba

1 year ago
0:55
Winnipeg police are pulling out of the province's task force for missing and murdered exploited persons, a move the service says will streamline and strengthen their investigations. 0:55

The police service's new model will have more of a community-based centre, incorporating grassroots organizations in the hope of finding people in high-risk lifestyles before they become a murder statistic, Smyth said.

Investigators will work in collaboration with the Winnipeg Outreach Network, more than a dozen grassroots and community groups that provide services to Indigenous women and youth.

"As a police service, we have to focus our efforts on working with the Indigenous community to ensure vulnerable Indigenous women and girls are not exploited in the first place," Smyth said.

Devote started in 2011 and was responsible for 28 cold cases — eight missing people and 20 homicide victims.

The death of Myrna Letandre is the one case that was solved.

The 36-year-old went missing in October 2006. Her remains were found in 2013, buried in the foundation of a rooming house in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood.

In 2015, Traigo Andretti was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Letandre. Andretti died by suicide in his cell at Saskatchewan's Regional Psychiatric Centre the following year.

Smyth said he had been thinking for a while about how to broaden the police service's approach to MMIWG cases and Devote's lack of success played a part in the decision to leave it behind.

"I think it was time to look at a different approach."

Partnering with outreach workers who are on the streets and making contact with exploited individuals should make a big difference, Smyth said.

"That's where I think the real value-added is here."

Smyth doesn't know how many of the 28 Devote files originated in Winnipeg and which were rural and under the auspices of the RCMP, but none will be abandoned, he said.

"We'll assure that relationship with the families that have been impacted [will continue]. We're broadening our ability," he said, adding the police service meets regularly with the RCMP and will continue to do so.

"We will continue to advance those when and where we can. But we're going to try an approach that works more with the community on the prevention side — trying to work on the counter-exploitation and the missing persons side of the house before people become victims, so we're not dealing with homicide investigations."

A spokesperson for the RCMP said the decision by Winnipeg police will not sink Project Devote.

"This does not change our approach. We will continue to investigate all cases thoroughly," said Cpl. Julie Courchaine.

She added the RCMP will fill the gap on Devote by bringing in officers from its major crime services unit when needed.

'Less bureaucracy'

The new model will see a co-ordination of resources from the police service's homicide unit, the counter-exploitation unit, the missing persons unit and the internet child exploitation unit.

Police are also hiring a full-time family liaison to help connect officers to the families of those missing and murdered people.

All of those people will work in the same building, not be split between RCMP headquarters at D Division on Portage Avenue and the police HQ downtown, Smyth said.

"It's more encompassing," Smyth said about the new model.

"I think the biggest thing [this change] does for us, it gives us the ability to be very flexible and to transition an investigation more quickly with less bureaucracy."

Police Chief Danny Smyth speaks with reporters on Friday after announcing the police service is pulling out of Project Devote to refocus on MMIWG cases with more of a community-based structure. (John Einarson/CBC)

Project Devote initially launched with 10 city officers, eight RCMP officers, two RCMP civilian analysts, three RCMP data entry persons and one RCMP administrative staff member.

According to RCMP, it was later adjusted to consist of eight city officers, six RCMP officers and the other six positions. Meanwhile, the amount of investigations has increased, currently at 30 cases, Courchaine said.

The devote model had faced criticism about a lack of co-ordination between the families and the police agencies. Smyth believes the new model will address some of that. 

"I think it's a step in the right direction. Communicating with families that are going through a long journey like that is always challenging, particularly if an investigation isn't advancing," he said.

Now they can go straight to the liaison and "deal with one person" and form a relationship over time that will make it easier for everyone concerned, he said.

Some of the WPS members were located at D Division but were reassigned in November to general patrol and investigative units when the city was dealing with a spike in crime.

The number of brazen liquor store thefts were soaring as was the number of homicides, which hit a record-setting 44 by the end of the year.

The Project Devote officers did not return to D Division once the crime situation was back under control.

Indigenous community approves

The change announced by Smyth have been met with approval — as well as some surprise — by members of the Indigenous community.

"One would think the WPS would work with our office to build relationships and identify partnerships in order to find innovative and preventative ways … to address the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls," Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas stated in a news release.

"Regardless, the fact that they have created a dedicated family liaison position is good. It is consistent with the AMC MMIWG National Inquiry recommendation that all policing agencies create dedicated staff positions to facilitate contact with police and [that] timely provision of information be provided to families of MMIWG."

WATCH | Sheila North on new MMIWG model:

'I think it's a good move'

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1 year ago
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Sheila North welcomes changes to the police investigations on MMIWG. 1:04

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith outright congratulated Smyth for listening to families' calls for more coordination of efforts into MMIWG investigations.

"Focusing efforts and working together with the Indigenous community to support families and to ensure vulnerable Indigenous women and girls are not exploited is incredibly important," said Smith, whose own sister is one of the missing.

Claudette Osborne-Tyo has been missing from Winnipeg since 2008. She made her last known phone call at a payphone at the corner of Selkirk Avenue and King Street in Winnipeg's North End. 

"We look forward to the WPS and the RCMP continuing to work collaboratively on cases and not allowing jurisdictional issues to get in the way. We welcome the addition of a family liaison to keep loved ones informed of updates and to provide support," Smith said.

"These are all good steps towards reconciliation, building relationships and hopefully bringing answers to families. There is more work to do, but this is a move in the right direction."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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