Manitoba

'Our community is reeling': Winnipeg police chief shuffles staffing to combat spike in violence

As crime surges in Winnipeg, the city's police service is realigning several units to boost the number of officers and investigators available to deal with the ongoing problem.

Criminologist decries 'hostile move,' says Danny Smyth is playing on public's fears

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth says the perception that overall crime has increased citywide in the past year is, in fact, a stark reality. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

As crime surges in Winnipeg, the city's police service is realigning several units to boost the number of officers and investigators available to deal with the problem.

"Our community is reeling, really, and our organization is reeling here. A lot of people just can't make sense of what's going on right now in the community," police Chief Danny Smyth said at a news conference.

"The level of violence, the level of property crime, it's bad. It's alarming for all of us."

Winnipeg's crime statistics for 2019 are "well above" the five-year average "and our five-year averages are well above the Canadian average," Smyth said.

"It's clear that there's a perception out there that overall crime has increased citywide in the past year. I think it's fair to say that perception is, in fact, the reality right now."

74 officers reassigned

Staffing levels will be altered in the following units: major crimes, station duty, traffic and community relations. Officers will be reassigned to general patrol and investigative units.

A total of 74 officers will be assigned to these areas, a police spokesperson said.

Investigators also have been pulled off Project Devote and the intelligence unit. Both of those are integrated units the police service is involved in with the RCMP.

"We're going to pull back temporarily so they can meet the backlog of homicides now," Smyth said.

Danny Smyth speaks at a Nov. 8 news conference:

Chief Danny Smyth talks about what prompted the Winnipeg Police Service to make staffing changes. 2:03

Changes also have been made to district stations in city neighbourhoods, with a number of communications staff being centralized in the downtown headquarters.

That means duty offices in district stations will be closed. However, public reports can be made by phone and online, 24 hours a day, Smyth said.

The changes also will mean a reduction in traffic enforcement and in the time spent on the checkstop program for impaired drivers, as well as in school education programs.

"We know that crime and policing are top of mind. We know that people want police to investigate crime. We know people want us to concentrate on gangs," Smyth said.

"People want assurances that police will respond to urgent calls in a prompt manner. They want to see us out there. We understand that."

Every category of violent crime except arson has gone up this past year, Smyth said.

The city has been inundated with brazen thefts at Liquor Marts across the city and has had 40 homicides this year, just two away from breaking a record.

Eleven of those homicides happened in the past 30 days — two of the victims were children — leaving police straining to deal with it all. 

The city has been inundated with brazen robberies from liquor marts across the city and has had 40 homicides this year, just two away from establishing a new record. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Smyth said changes are also needed for his police force.

"We can't keep scrambling the way we have been. We have never had this many homicides in such a short period of time. It has strained the physical abilities of the people there," the police chief said.

"I can tell you right now from walking around, people are pretty stressed."

According to a spokesperson, there has been a 3 per cent jump in sick leave with Winnipeg police in the last three months.

The staffing arrangements will be evaluated after the holiday season or sooner if things return to a more manageable workload volume, Smyth said, thanking his staff for making the changes occur in a short period of time.

Typically, a significant upheaval of this sort would take months or years of planning, not a week or two, he said.

'Hostile move' from police: criminologist

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg, criticized the changes.

Brownyn Dobchuk-Land, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg. (Submitted by Brownyn Dobchuk-Land)

"It's a really hostile move on the part of the Winnipeg Police Service," she said. "They are bullying the mayor and the city, essentially.

"What Danny Smyth is trying to do, is put the mayor in a position where the mayor has to say, 'OK fine, we'll cough up more public resources," she said.

She said more police funding does not reduce violent crime.

Dobchuk-Land said police are taking resources out of the divisions that specific communities have argued for, and instead have been investing them in areas like the guns and gangs unit. 

"This is the unit with the helicopter, the tank, with the big guns. This is the unit where they don't try to have a friendly face," she said, adding this could escalate tensions.

"They're not really interested in solving the problems that people are facing. They're using public fears as a pawn in this game to try to get more public resources."

She said funding needs to be redirected to public housing and safe spaces for drug users.

The head of MADD Canada said he was concerned pulling officers from the traffic enforcement division could mean impaired drivers won't face any consequences. 

"We know from research that the reason people drive impaired is their likelihood of getting caught, and so if there's fewer resources, both in personnel and check-points or sobriety checkpoints, then you know people are more likely to drive impaired," he said. 

"And unfortunately, the consequences with that is a lot of times it leads to crashes which involve injury and death."

Kevin Klein, councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood and the police board chair, said he stands by this move by police.

"I think today shows the service is doing everything they can to put the resources where they're needed, and now you're going to see a bit of an impact of that," he said.

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

With files from Cameron MacIntosh and Nelly Gonzalez