‘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.

“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.”

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.

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 building, Smyth said.

That means the duty offices in the district stations will be closed. However, public reports also 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.

“These changes, I think, are necessary so we can address the health and wellness of our front-line officers who have been put under a tremendous amount of strain,” Smyth said.

The co-ordinated response of the communication centre will help increase response times, he said.

“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 establishing a new 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.

‘Don’t let this little boy die in vain’ 

Smyth’s announcement came on the same day friends and family of one of those young victims, three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith, planned to celebrate his life. 

Ahead of the Friday service, Darryl Contois, who has been speaking on behalf of the family, said he’d like to see more men’s support groups in the city, and the reopening of Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, so that families who are struggling have somewhere to go. 

“Don’t let this little boy die in vain, and not have an impact in this whole city,” he said. 

“It’s a big part of the city, that friendship centre, and now that it’s closed, I’d like to see something happen there for Hunter’s family.”

Darryl Contois, who has been speaking on behalf of Hunter Straight-Smith’s family, said he would like to see more supports for families in light of the recent violence that has rocked the city. (Gary Solilak/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.”

Every area of the city has been affected by property crime and thousands of people have been victims, he said, adding that if someone hasn’t been a victim, they likely know someone who has.

“People don’t feel safe walking after dark. Even our own premier has weighed in about downtown safety after saying that he was confronted when walking downtown,” Smyth said.

The staffing arrangements will be re-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.

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)

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.

“But they’re dealing with the situation. They’re trying to do their best to make sure everybody is safe and changes were needed for that.”

However, the head of MADD Canada said he was concerned the decision to pull officers from the traffic enforcement division. If there are fewer resources allocated to checkstops and traffic enforcement, it could mean that those driving impaired won’t face any consequences, he said. 

“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, and so it’s disappointing.”

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