Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police fear for safety at old, new HQs

Union wants secure staff parking

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Winnipeg's police union says provisions for staff parking around the city's new police headquarters place employees at a continuing risk of harassment, surveillance and attack -- even as the $210-million project improves the perception of safety in the South Portage neighbourhood.

In 2010, the Winnipeg Police Service began allowing officers to carry firearms on their way to and from work as a response to a series of incidents in which off-duty police were assaulted, followed, had their cars vandalized or were otherwise victimized after hours, sometimes by organized criminal gangs.

Criminal gangs have "severely assaulted" off-duty Winnipeg police officers, conducted surveillance on them outside of work and have even shown up at family events in brazen attempts at intimidation, officials say. Police also have complained of being followed to their vehicles. The escalation of these incidents led the service to offer its members rides or escorts to their vehicles, but many refuse.

The problem arose partly due to an absence of secure parking around the Public Safety Building on Princess Street -- a shortage exacerbated by the closure of the Civic Centre Parkade in 2012, when years of deferred maintenance led to an emergency shutdown.

The Winnipeg Police Association, a union representing the vast majority of police officers and civilian employees, says the city has, in spite of warnings, made little effort to ensure staff parking is more secure when the police service moves into its new Graham Avenue headquarters next year.

'... Here we are, with the building almost complete, yet there are no measures for us'

-- Winnipeg Police Association president Mike Sutherland

"It seems the membership is a typical afterthought," said police association president Mike Sutherland, who has been lobbying the police brass and the city to find secure parking for his members since 2010 -- with what he describes as little success.

"I don't think there was any consideration from the get-go, even though it was no secret to the powers that be in the police service and the government," he said. "Yet here we are, with the building almost complete, yet there are no measures for us."

The Winnipeg Police Service expects more than 1,150 people to work at the new headquarters in the former Canada Post mail-processing facility, which the city purchased in 2009 for $29.25 million and spent the next three years renovating at a cost, to date, of $172 million. Finance charges and fees have taken the total project up to $210 million.

Given that officers work in shifts, the police service estimated it only needs to secure 350 parking spots for its employees, said Sutherland, citing information he was provided.

Last week, the police service offered employees working opposite shifts the chance to double up on $271-a-month underground stalls at the city-owned Millennium Library Parkade or $255-a-month stalls at the Impark-operated Winnipeg Square Parkade, Sutherland said.

The plan would see two officers split the tab, with each being issued a parking transponder that will give access to the parkade -- provided the other transponder isn't in use at the time.

Sutherland said he applauds the service for attempting to provide some form of parking, but called the offer "trying to close the barn door" after the city failed to secure parking for police elsewhere.

While underground lots have security guards, they are not secure enough to prevent police employees from being stalked or ambushed, Sutherland said.

The absence of secure parking will require an expanded SafeWalk program for police employees, especially the civilians who cannot carry weapons, Sutherland said.

He also said many police, especially junior officers, cannot afford the monthly parking charges, which dwarf the $40-a-month rate for stalls at suburban police stations. "Nobody will want to work downtown."

The scarcity of adequate parking for police is not unique to Winnipeg, said city council finance chairman Russ Wyatt (Transcona) -- all Canadian cities with downtown police headquarters have the same problem.

"There's always a challenge in terms of access to parking and secure parking," he said, opining the Millennium Library Parkade should meet the service's needs. "You have a parkade which is right next door, which is underground, heated and connected. So I think there's a potential solution there."

The city's inability to find a better solution is unacceptable, considering the long lead time on the project, countered Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck. She argues the absence of secure parking is yet another mismanaged aspect of the police headquarters project, which has been plagued by design changes, incomplete designs and $73 million in cost increases, so far.

"I think it's ridiculous. It should have been built into the plan four years ago," she said. "Secure parking is essential. There have been too many incidents of officers getting attacked or having their vehicles attacked."

One of the stated goals of renovating the former Canada Post building into new police headquarters was to improve the perception of safety downtown.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2013 A3


Updated on Monday, December 16, 2013 at 7:07 AM CST: Replaces photo

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