Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Matter of resources, priorities
Police can be stretched thin: ex-officer
It appears to be a simple question: How could police not have responded to a call for trouble brewing at a Winnipeg bar prior to a deadly weekend shooting?
After all, there would have been dozens of officers working in the area at the time. And the main headquarters of the Winnipeg Police Service is just a few blocks away.
But it turns out answering this question -- which is now the subject of an internal police investigation called by Chief Devon Clunis -- is more complicated than it seems.
"Anyone who thinks the police are just sitting around killing time is dead wrong," retired Winnipeg police homicide detective James Jewell told the Free Press on Wednesday.
And that, several experts and justice sources say, is the crux of the issue as the investigation into the shooting death of 23-year-old Rustom Paclipan continues.
How calls are received, prioritized and dispatched within the 911 communications centre is an exercise in risk management, resource management and even a bit of luck.
Everything that could have gone wrong likely did early Sunday.
For starters, the initial call to police at 1:39 a.m. from the owner of the Opera Ultralounge nightclub warned of potential conflict between two groups of men at the Main Street establishment.
But it's important to note there was no talk of an actual fight in progress and no mention of any weapons. Because of this, it's likely the call was given the lowest possible priority. And so it sat in the "queue" with no units on the street volunteering to attend or being assigned.
"Around that time on a Friday or Saturday night, it isn't unusual for the dispatch queue to be overwhelmed with calls for service," said Jewell. "Patrol units often race from call to call all night long. Typical calls involve all kinds of fights -- bar fights, fights on the street, gang fights and domestic assaults, convenience store and strong-arm robberies, out-of-control parties, noise complaints, impaired-driving reports, traffic accidents... the list goes on."
To illustrate this, reports surfaced Wednesday several officers were at the nearby Union Sound Hall on Market Avenue around 2 a.m., where they were dealing with a reported fight in progress. So while they were very close, they certainly weren't free to attend.
"The police have a very specific call categorization and prioritization procedure. Those procedures are in a constant state of flux and evolve like everything else in the criminal-justice system does," said Jewell. "Any call that includes danger or potential danger to life receives top priority. Crimes in progress are also high-priority calls."
Jewell said it's noteworthy the call for service at the Opera was cancelled by police at 1:59 a.m. -- pretty much exactly when the club would have been closing its doors for the night.
With no other reports coming in following the owner's initial call 20 minutes earlier, justice sources say it's likely a senior officer within the 911 centre figured whatever issues might have been present at the Opera had resolved themselves peacefully now the business was closing, thus removing the call from the queue before it had been dispatched.
"The fact the call was not dispatched after it was entered in the queue tells me that all of the patrol units working that night were tied up. Patrol units can only take one call at a time and are often tied up for hours on arrests," said Jewell.
Of course, nobody could have predicted a second 911 call would come moments later, at 2:03 a.m., reporting the gunshots that led to Paclipan's death.
"The fact remains, with no patrol units available, it's quite possible police may never have been dispatched to the nightclub in time to prevent the murder even if the call hadn't been cancelled," said Jewell. "Even the bar manager indicated he never thought the dispute would escalate to the extent it did."
Hindsight, of course, is always 20-20. Jewell said the internal review will likely provide important information going forward.
"Part of the internal investigation is sure to look at dispatch call volume, patrol unit availability and major events that may have put an increased demand on resources," he said.
Global TV reported Wednesday a cruiser car in the area of the Opera was flagged down by an intoxicated woman right around 2 a.m., indicating she saw someone with a firearm, but that police left the scene without further investigation when nothing obvious was observed. And some family and friends of Paclipan have spoken out, telling local media outlets they believe the tragedy could have been prevented had police acted differently.
"It ultimately comes down to resources. The police simply can't be everywhere," said Jewell.
Winnipeg police refused to answer a list of questions provided by the Free Press on Wednesday, which included queries about their staffing levels that night, availability of any foot patrols and their call volume at the time. A spokesman cited the ongoing internal review as the reason.
The Winnipeg Police Association also didn't return messages seeking comment.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 A3
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