Short-term meth shelter a chief concern

Police Chief Danny Smyth not only called out city hall for failing to do enough to alleviate the methamphetamine crisis, he also called out the province on the same front. Public servants rarely test their political masters this way.

Danny Smyth called out governments over addictions response. It's what Winnipeggers expect from a police chief

Police Chief Danny Smyth says police are overwhelmed by responding to emergencies and less serious crimes are no longer being investigated quickly. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

At the upper echelons of Winnipeg's public service, officials don't tend to last long if they make mayors look ineffective or even just outshine them.

During the Sam Katz years, city entomologist Taz Stuart and parking authority head Dave Hill both left their gigs early after running afoul of the mayor's office. During Brian Bowman's first term, public works director Lester Deane had to leave after he contradicted the mayor's position on reopening Portage and Main.

In contrast, Doug McNeil was able to leave the city on his own terms this spring after spending five years as chief administrative officer because he always appeared to have Bowman's back, at least in public.

Chiefs of police don't have to worry as much about upsetting elected officials; they now report to the Winnipeg Police Board, as opposed to council.

But they still don't make a habit of throwing political bombs into the mayor's lap.

That's why last week was remarkable for Police Chief Danny Smyth, who not only called out city hall for failing to do enough to alleviate the methamphetamine crisis, he also called out the province on the same front — and admitted police are now so busy rushing to serious emergencies, they're no longer always able to arrest known suspects in robberies and break-ins.

"It's just hard to tell right now if anyone in government is committed to the actions necessary to help our community recover," Smyth wrote last week in a bulletin to his officers, referring to the way the meth crisis is overwhelming the police service. "Please hang in there."

In public, these comments provoked boiler-plate expressions of sympathy from Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister. Privately, several officials wondered whether Smyth is putting his job on the line in order to push the city and province to do something that's never been done before in Canada: Build a stand-alone methamphetamine-stabilization facility that's capable of safely containing intoxicated patients until they're no longer an immediate threat to other citizens, including police and paramedics.

"I guess I sounded the alarm again and certainly got a lot of people's attention," Smyth said late last week in an interview. "All I can do is try to show them some of the impact that this is having on the community. 

"And now I'm starting to show them some of the impact that it's having on organizations like the police, like the paramedics. It's putting strain on us now and we're being used in a way that it probably isn't what we're intended for."

Discarded needles have become a common sight in Winnipeg. (Bert Savard/CBC)

To summarize the chief's bulletin: Partly because of methamphetamine, police have become too busy to do their jobs in a manner the public finds acceptable.

Smyth says while police continue to respond to emergencies in a timely manner, they're taking days to investigate less serious robberies and break-ins. And this angers Winnipeggers, justifiably.

"Let's put it this way: Someone broke into your house, but they're not there any more. It's still very upsetting and traumatic," he said. "We're not getting there right away, so it could be days before we actually get there to take the report. That's the kind of stuff that's upsetting people."

There are nights when hundreds of police calls sit in the queue, Smyth said. But he's not arguing for more police on the streets, as much as he's pushing for a means of ensuring police do not have to play the role of public-health providers. 

Hence, he argues, the immediate need for a holding centre, which would free up police and paramedic resources. Activists have been pushing for something like this for years — Const. Tim Diack, a Point Douglas beat cop, ran for mayor last year primarily to promote the idea.

Critics may see a secure stabilization facility as draconian and cruel. But the chief isn't arguing against the construction of long-term addictions-treatment facilities or anti-poverty strategies to reduce the desperation that leads to meth use in the first place.

He's simply pushing for a short-term solution as an immediate community harm-reduction measure.

The problem is, no other Canadian city has built such a thing — and that makes governments reluctant to jump in with money and personnel, let alone political capital.

There simply is no model for what Smyth and others are proposing.

"I would say there isn't. And therein lies part of the problem," he said. "There aren't a lot of other cities in Canada that are dealing with with meth the way we're dealing with it right now."

In Vancouver, the problem is opioids. In the Maritimes, alcohol intoxication remains the most significant substance-abuse problem.

It still hasn't completely dawned on political leaders in Winnipeg that this city and province have no choice but to lead the way, with a new form of facility to handle violent, unpredictable methamphetamine patients.

"I don't know that they appreciate that it's likely going to be a made-in-Manitoba type solution," Smyth said.

"I appreciate [they're] taking the time to try to figure out the best way to go, because it will be costly. No question, because the treatment is going to be longer," he said, referring to a complete program for methamphetamine-addiction recovery. 

"But we need relief on the short-term shelter. We need relief on the transition, so that you're not putting your police and your paramedic services into this role, where we're hanging on to these people and trying to funnel them to an emergency [room]. That's not helping any of us."

Insp. Max Waddell, commander of the Winnipeg Police Service's organized crime unit, shows off seized methamphetamine at a January news conference. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Not everyone is on board with the chief's push. The Winnipeg Police Association, for example, would prefer to see more police officers on the streets to handle the jump in police demand.

"There's no doubt that meth is playing a role in it, whether it's homicides or whether it's petty thefts or bike thefts. But I think what we have to focus on is that there there's a huge increase in demand for service," WPA president Maurice Sabourin said.

"You know the chief talks about the province and the feds weighing in and yes, there are some solutions there that they could help with, but I think in the meantime, we have to address the volume of calls."

Likewise, Pallister suggested this week more needs to be done in terms of education to convince people not use meth in the first place. While no one would dispute the need for education, a 1980s-style "just say no to drugs" pamphlet won't pacify a patient in the grips of methamphetamine psychosis.

And even if Smyth is successful and a shelter does get built, no one will hold the chief a parade. Council will still complain about the cost of policing. The police union will continue to press for more resources. Crimes will continue to occur.

What is apparent, from Smyth's stance last week, is the status quo isn't working for the police. And that suggests the chief is doing what Winnipeggers expect from a person in his position — placing his duty above his job.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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