‘The situation is not normal’: Community leaders respond to Winnipeg police chief’s comments on crime

Winnipeg community leaders are speaking up for new approaches in the wake of Chief Danny Smyth’s comments Friday that the levels of crime in the city are “not new.” 

Concern about violent crime as an issue has sparked after a series of violent acts at The Forks in the week leading up to the start of July. 

Smyth said calls for service to the popular public gathering place and tourist destination are in line with past trends and relatively small in the overall picture of crime in Winnipeg

“In terms of aggravated assaults, this is not new – it’s alarming … we’ve had stabbings there before, we’ve had homicides there before,” he said.

Some, however, are expressing concern that Smyth’s comments normalize an unenviable status quo. 

“A, it’s true, but B, that’s horrible – the fact that this is not new and that we’re still sitting here with no really good strategy,” said Sel Burrows in a Sunday interview. 

Burrows, a long-time community advocate and one of the founders of the Point Douglas Powerline, said the fact that there’s even a few violent acts at The Forks is “horrible, absolutely horrible.” 

Sel burrows says creating a culture where criminals feel uncomfortable doing business can make communities safer. He wants to see police work harder to involve the community in solving crime problems. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

“The message is, ‘there’s not much we can do, this is normal, this is happening,’ instead of saying, ‘hey, we the police have to look at some different ways of doing things,'” Burrows said. 

“The high crime rate [has] become normal. And when we start saying, OK, it’s just normal, we’re not going to stop it. And Winnipeggers – all Winnipeggers – should be disgusted with the high crime rate we have,” he said. 

Burrows said police — including Smyth — need to do more to get community members involved in helping deal with the problem and make it easier to work with police. 

“We must get people who live and work in areas involved in crime prevention. It’s very basic and very cheap,” he said. 

Making city safer means investing in social supports, not police: professor 

Criminologist and University of Winnipeg associate professor of criminal justice Kevin Walby said Smyth, backed on Friday by Winnipeg Police Board chair Coun. Markus Chambers, are not being honest about the reality of Winnipeg’s situation. 

“The situation is not normal, and policing is not going to address the kinds of harm and transgression and conflict that we see in Winnipeg,” Walby said, acknowledging there’s “a lot of distress” in the city ranging from economic inequality, to mental health issues, lack of affordable housing and substance addictions. 

But the two officials are in a conflict when it comes to how to deal with the situation as they have to promote the police service and fight for budget dollars to support it, said Walby. 

“They don’t have to look at all the other evidence that suggests policing, criminalization, imprisonment actually harms our community. It adds more harm to the equation.” 

Criminologist Kevin Walby says long-term safety in Winnipeg will require investing in community supports, addictions treatment and affordable, safe, housing instead of policing. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Walby is an advocate for investing more of police budgets back into social services, community supports and housing. He said civic leaders and politicians need to work on the social issues that underpin crime problems.

We’re not going to criminalize our way out of any kind of uptick in transgression and in conflict. The more we lock people up, the more we’re actually kind of dissolving what social bonds remain in our communities,” Walby said. 

“The more we criminalize people, the more we drive up divorce rates, the more we drive up unemployment, [the] tougher we make it easier for people to actually survive. And they’ll be more distressed in a few months. In a few years. So it’s actually a recipe to increase crime rates in the long term, putting money into policing,” said Walby. 

The service currently commands more than a quarter of the city’s operating budget at $320 million. On Friday, a report was tabled at city council’s finance committee projecting a $7.5 million shortfall for this year due to rising expenses. 

And that reality paves a path for officials to say more police resources are needed and the budget goes up, Walby said. 

“The police chief … and the head of the police board will come out and say Winnipeg is in a crisis. There’s so much conflict, there’s so much transgression, almost as a kind of camouflage for the culture of cost overruns at the police service,” he said. 

It is a situation playing out with police forces across the country, he added. 

He said taking a long-term, generational approach to funding and tackling the root causes of crime would make the city safer in the long run. He is not of the view police could be simply abolished overnight. 

“How can we live in a safer society if we keep pouring all the money that we have into police and roads for cars? Those are the two things we spend all of our money on in the city. Yes, of course, there’s going to be transgression and distress and conflict … because we’re not meeting people’s needs,” Walby said. 

Police statistics for last year to show hike in calls for service, chief says. 

This week, the service plans to release its statistical report for 2021. Smyth said Friday the service handled more than 230,000 calls for service that year. 

Almost 10 per cent of those were for officers to conduct wellbeing checks, he said. “People are calling us for help a lot.” 

Chambers said the police board will seek input from the community through engagement and surveys in the coming months. 

He wants to see a summit on downtown safety where various groups can discuss how to combat crime and work toward removing Winnipeg’s stigma as a crime-ridden city.

“We have to reimagine what community safety looks like in our city,” Chambers told reporters after Smyth concluded taking questions. “And get our community on board in terms of being actively working on community safety and wellbeing.”

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