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Police taking it on the chin for the downtown

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A city police Tactical team marches away from a house they raided.

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A city police Tactical team marches away from a house they raided. Photo Store

I see where the Kiwanis Club wants anyone and everyone to offer nominations for their next Top Cop community volunteer awards gala, and I've already got my nominee in mind.

The city's top cop.

I jest, of course, but in his brief time in office Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis has impressed me, and I suspect a lot of other Winnipeggers, with his vision for and commitment to a safer city. While it's not original, I like how he's stepped up and reached out even more to schools and the inner-city neighbourhoods that need the most help. Not that the chief hasn't got more to learn.

So it was this week Clunis took the podium at a news conference where, before addressing the latest crime stats, he opened by lecturing the media about essentially being more positive in their reporting on Winnipeg's image when it involves crime.

And the perception Winnipeg is a dangerous place.

It was condescending, even gratuitous, but given there's a city hall tradition of telling police chiefs how to spin their annual reports, maybe Clunis was just following orders.

He wanted the media to accentuate the positive in the latest crime stats and concentrate on how crime in Winnipeg -- like most Canadian cities -- is generally trending downward.

Even downtown.

Most of the decline in police-reported crime in 2012 didn't come on Clunis's watch. What apparently did was a decision to carve out crime stats for a stretch of the city's core, centred on Portage Avenue and stretching from the University of Winnipeg district through the so-called retail district and Portage Place, past the sports, hospitality and entertainment district and the MTS Centre, to the commercial district around Portage and Main. Essentially, it's what is popularly known as "downtown."

It's what police have designated as the Portage Avenue Districts and what Clunis appeared to mean when he referred to "the heart" of Winnipeg.

The statistical carving out of the area had been recommended internally years back, and more recently by the Downtown BIZ, which wants to deal with what it considers a misconception of "downtown" as a dangerous place.

Based on the numbers, you can judge for yourself.

Police reported six per cent fewer violent crimes last year -- 463 -- in the Portage Avenue Districts, and no murders or even attempted murders, if that makes you feel any safer. Those heart-of-the-city numbers compare with 1,114 violent crimes in the Downtown district as a whole, and 8,151 city-wide.

It gets more interesting when police break down how many of last year's Portage Avenue Districts crimes happened between people who knew each other, and how many were what police refer to "stranger crimes only" -- in other words, violent crimes between people who didn't know each other. While both those categories were down significantly, what stands out is the vast majority of crimes were committed by strangers attacking strangers. In fact, of the 335 violent crimes reported last year in the Portage Avenue Districts, only 68 involved people who were familiar with each other.

What also stands out is a separate category of downtown violence:

Assaults on peace officers.

 

Police reported 40 assaults against peace officers last year in the Portage Avenue Districts, which is a 60 per cent jump over 2011. At the news conference Clunis was initially stuck for an answer to a question about the larger number of assaults on his officers, a question the new Chief should have anticipated and been ready for. All Clunis could suggest is the increase in assaults on cops is a reflection of an overall lack of respect for authority.

That would be plausible, if it weren't for the nationwide trend to fewer assaults on police officers and a local five-year trend in that direction.

What last year's spike in violence against cops suggests to me is police are more present and involved in the downtown district, which was the intention they signalled last year by the move to downtown foot patrols.

That, and the police service's own goal to pay more attention to areas of the city where crime is of particular concern. What's also indicative of more cop involvement in the heart of the city is a marked increase in police-initiated action in the area, which, again, suggests police are more present. Couple that with cadets and private patrols and people should feel safer downtown.

But that's not my impression.

The time when people do feel safe downtown is after a Jets game or a concert at the MTS Centre when there are throngs of people.

And when there are cops around.

The Winnipeg Police Service can take a bow for taking it on the chin and trying to make Winnipeg's downtown a safer place. But that, alone, won't change people's perceptions that downtown is a dangerous place.

Anymore than lecturing the media about accentuating the positive will change the fact some Winnipeg neighbourhoods are dangerous places.

Just ask the people who live where all those crime stat numbers have names.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 B1

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