New police Chief Devon Clunis said his attempts to bring the community together through an interview with a Christian news magazine were twisted out of context in media reports.
Clunis, who agreed to take questions from local reporters after initially refusing to do so at a formal police news briefing, said media outlets misconstrued his comments in ChristianWeek about the ability of the community to combat violent crime through the power of faith.
"I'm a little bit disconcerted that what was presented as a message to bring people together and to unify this community is now being spun in somewhat of a negative light."
Clunis said mainstream media focused on his comments that he encouraged people of all faiths to pray for peace in Winnipeg, but they left out the statement that those prayers have to be followed by action.
Clunis, a 25-year veteran of the Winnipeg Police Service, was chosen at the beginning of the month to replace Chief Keith McCaskill, who is retiring in December. Clunis has been a police-service chaplain for the past 14 years and his Christian faith is vitally important to him.
The interview in ChristianWeek appeared on its website Oct. 11. It was picked up Monday by the Toronto Star and Winnipeg news outlets began repeating it Tuesday. However, Clunis had turned down requests from local media outlets to explain his comments, with the exception of the CBC, which interviewed him Tuesday morning for its local morning radio show and then Wednesday morning for a national radio program.
Clunis unexpectedly attended Wednesday's morning police news briefing but before it began, media were told questions could only be asked on the scheduled topics -- which did not include Clunis's comments.
Clunis left the briefing after the presentation of a new online reporting system and would not take questions about his comments on prayer and faith. However, he returned after the conclusion of the formal news briefing and answered questions for about eight minutes.
Clunis said he focused on prayer in the interview with ChristianWeek because it has a Christian audience, but he added his focus was following up prayer with action to make Winnipeg a better place. Winnipeggers should volunteer at their local school, Neighbourhood Watch or other activities designed to improve the community, he said, adding that was the message media had omitted.
"Whatever it takes, whatever appeals to you, that's what I want you to use."
Clunis said he has no intention of forcing police to pray.
"I'm surprised at the nature of the negative reaction," Clunis said. "The fact that in a community like this, you can take something which is an innocent comment meant for good and utilize it to be such a negative effect, you sometimes wonder why our community is the way it is.
"We really shouldn't be so quick to judge someone without sitting down and having a good conversation with them."
Clunis said he doesn't regret his comments about the power of faith and action, adding he believes those who don't share them can still make a positive impact in the community.
Clunis would not comment on quotes attributed to him in ChristianWeek, where he said he believes God helped him climb the ranks of the Winnipeg Police Service.
"I believe without a shadow of a doubt the only reason that I am in this position is because God is involved in it," Clunis is quoted as saying in ChristianWeek.
The Winnipeg Police Association said it stands behind Clunis.
"(Clunis) has a strong character and as a membership, we feel he will act in the best interest of the city and our membership to ensure we are able to do our jobs to the best of our ability," WPA president Mike Sutherland said. "Devon's faith is a help to him, not a hindrance."
Mayor Sam Katz, who was in Ottawa when Clunis's comments were reported, said he has yet to speak to the incoming chief to find out exactly what he meant.
"What he said and how it's interpreted may not be the same," Katz said. "What I've seen is irrelevant. I want to hear it from the chief."
Katz said he has no idea whether Clunis has received media training and declined to answer questions regarding how prepared he is for his role.
-- with files from Bartley Kives