Winnipeg’s police chief says the service is struggling to handle the number of homicide investigations so far this year due to pressures in the first three months of 2022, including 500 people forced to take time off work due to COVID-19.
The police force has also been strained by the 53 special events, like protests and rallies, so far this year, according to the service’s latest business plan update, which covers the first quarter of 2022 and was presented at a Winnipeg Police Board meeting on Friday.
There were 72 such events in the downtown area in all of last year.
And with 23 homicides so far this year, police Chief Danny Smyth said officers are burned out.
“It has a trickle down,” he told reporters after Friday’s police board meeting.
“It’s not just the homicide unit that gets called out. It’s the forensics unit. It’s our front-line units that are often first there.… It has an impact on the queue, and it starts to back up.”
Smyth said overtime was up 29 per cent in this year’s first quarter, compared to last year. The latest public crime data from February shows violent crime was up 21 per cent compared to that month last year.
Smyth said he’s not happy with that trend.
“All it takes is a couple of major events, which are very intensive at the front end in terms of drawing resources in,” said Smyth.
“This past month, we’ve seen our queues back up to as many as 300 calls waiting to be dispatched. That’s too high for my comfort zone.”
The city is seeing an uptick in violent crime right now, but Winnipeg is still a safe city, the police chief said.
“I live in the city, and I have children in the city — it is still a relatively safe city,” said Smyth.
“But people need to be aware and they need to be situationally aware when they’re out and about.”
‘No proactive policing’: union
The police union president has a different take.
Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin said police officers are so burned out, they’re refusing overtime.
The service said it called officers in on their days off 433 times in the first three months of 2022. The five-year, pre-COVID average was 222 calls, it said.
“They’re going from call to call to call,” Sabourin told reporters Friday.
“There is no proactive policing. It is strictly response…. I would wish the service would report accurately on all of the incidents that are occurring out there because it’s scary. I wouldn’t let my kids come downtown.”
Sabourin said Smyth is “getting a failing grade” right now as a leader.
“If I was the GM of a successful sports team, and the team wasn’t doing well, you would probably change the coach,” he said.
The increased overtime also affects the city’s budget. The police service’s budget accounts for almost one-third of the city’s total costs. Salaries and benefits make up the biggest chunk of the police budget.
The police board chair said that organization can’t weigh in on overtime right now.
“We can’t turn off the lights and shut the door at the end of the budget,” said Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River).
“We have to work through that budget and make sure that we’re providing adequate and effective service 365 days of the year.”
Chambers said the perception of being an unsafe city is affecting Winnipeg’s ability to rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to work together and collaboratively as a community to ensure that we can start to reduce these numbers and these trends, and not have an impact on overtime that we’re seeing now,” he said.
The Friday police board meeting was the first for new member Colleen Mayer, a former Progressive Conservative MLA. It was also the first for Coun. Ross Eadie since he was reinstated as a member in May.
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