The practical reality of policing in a city like Winnipeg can be summed up like this:
There's a finite number of officers to deal with consistently increasing demands on their time and efforts, and the court system isn't necessarily in tune with the weight of this reality, at the end of the day.
That's the bottom-line message Winnipeg Police Association President Mike Sutherland had for me Monday morning.
Sutherland called to discuss a column I wrote this weekend on "gating" — what's been described as a police tactic where offenders in jail are suddenly picked up on months (and sometimes years) old outstanding arrest warrants soon after they leave the confines of custody.
The column was written as a result of two court cases in which repercussions came about as a result of arrest warrants being served by police in an untimely way.
The column focused on what I see as the need for procedural fairness for all accused persons at all levels within the justice system and called for an end to the practice as described.
Based on what was disclosed on the court record, and the absolute lack of any explanation of why events unfolded as they did, I stand behind the piece and the conclusions made.
Sutherland didn't call me up to criticize or chide. He called to have a productive discussion.
In the decades of being a police officer, he told me directly, he's never seen a suspect intentionally "gated." Nor has he seen a colleague intentionally engage in the practice.
"I never did it. I don't know of any officers that did it," he said.
Look at the numbers, he urged. Based on 2013 records, 640 new warrants were added to the system each month of that year.
Based on the 2013 figures, said Sutherland, there were between 15,000-20,000 individuals in the system and between 25,000 and 30,000 warrants outstanding.
That's a staggering volume, for sure.
"We only have so much capacity to execute warrants," said Sutherland. "There's a lot of warrants, a lot of criminal activity in this jurisdiction."
In addition to the volume of outstanding warrants, there's good reason to believe officers aren't even aware a warrant for a suspect exists, given their need to prioritize workload and tasks in their days.
In addition, there's only a handful of officers working on the warrant apprehension squad, he said.
And largely, their focus is on tackling the most serious outstanding warrants (public safety being the priority) first.
They can't get to all of them, and - this is key to the police mindset - an offender sitting in custody is considered to be a low threat to public safety, as one might reasonably expect.
Also, Sutherland believes, workload and budgetary constraints have resulted in the WPS internal court and arrest processing units no longer checking for outstanding warrants on suspects detained at the remand centre, ones who appear for a bail hearing from inside there.
Staff at Headingley Correctional do a check for outstanding warrants when offenders are admitted to custody, but not on release, said Sutherland.
Then there's the hurdles officers face when executing a new arrest warrant at federal institutions like Stony Mountain.
In effect, Sutherland said, it's a mountain of paperwork and a significant procedural effort to get a warrant served there.
It's worth noting that the two cases that led to the reports on "gating" both involved offenders serving time at Stony [and elsewhere in the federal system].
In the end, officers have to carefully prioritize work hours in order to maximize the benefit they bring to public order, he said.
The responsibility for police is huge and the workload requirements in processing and executing warrants equals that, said Sutherland.
UPDATE: 6:55 p.m.
Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis sent out the WPS official response to the gating contoversy this afternoon. Here it is, in full, for the record.
A Letter to the Public from Chief Clunis
"The Justice System is made up of many parts including; The Judiciary, Prosecutions, Corrections, Police, and the most important in my view, The Public. It is critical that we work cooperatively in fostering and maintaining confidence in our justice system.
It is not my intent to malign any member of the system by responding to recent allegations leveled at the police service. My preferred practice is to address issues with respective leaders in a constructive manner and I've taken those steps in response to the recent articles regarding "gating". However, as this issue was brought to the public's attention casting a negative light on the Service and its members, I must respond in order to accurately inform the public.
It is important that the public understand the reality of warrants within the justice system.
- At any given time there are over 20,000 warrants in the system.
- In 2013, the WPS added 7,668 new warrants to the system (average of 639 per month).
- The WPS executed 7,412 warrants in 2013.
- Our officers have an immense workload. Persons who are in custody do not take priority over subjects who may pose an immediate threat to the public.
- In the instances recently reported, police were notified of the location of the subjects and the warrants by a third party. We responded to deal with those warrants.
To dedicate our time to processing sentenced prisoners holding warrants is challenging. The process for arresting an in-custody prisoner is time consuming and in some instances, requires obtaining a warrant as well as a removal order to release the prisoner from the institution for processing. Current calls for service wait while we process the prisoner.
This is simply a matter of priority in making the best use of limited resources.
We won't apologize for placing priority on citizen's calls for service and dealing with more pressing public concerns. The resources within our system are inadequate to meet the demand. Many processes within the justice system are arguably antiquated, inefficient, and challenging. Reform is needed. I'm hopeful that we can work cooperatively with our partners in finding mutually supportive solutions to these system challenges. Until that time, we will continue to utilize our resources to effectively meet the needs of all citizens."
[Bold emphasis added]