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Up in the air

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On my way to cover Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at the University of Manitoba a couple of weeks ago I bumped into an old cop.

Almost immediately we started talking about Mayor Sam Katz’s plan to buy a $3.5 million helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Service this year.

The old cop said there’s a benefit to the helicopter that hasn’t been addressed yet—it’d reduce complaints of police abuse.

How so? Police helicopters are equipped with cameras that record everything night and day, specifically an arrest of a suspect by officers on the ground. Incidents like this are recorded for court purposes, like if it involves a stolen car chase.

The old cop told me that police on the ground know the helicopter is recording their actions, so those who might refrain from using abusive force.

I searched high and low for something to back this up, whether jurisdictions that have police helicopters have noted a decline in police abuse complaints, but came up empty.

I mentioned this a few days later to another old cop. He said what’s unique about Winnipeg is that most complaints against police originate in incidents inside police stations or apartments or houses—not outside where a helicopter’s camera might record them.

A quick look through the province’s recently-released Law Enforcement Review Agency’s 2008 annual report bears this out. Since 2004, complaints to LERA of bad police behaviour outside on the street has dropped by more than half.

Of the complaints to LERA outlined in the 2008 report—it’s available online at LERA’s website —only one could have conceivably involved a police helicopter. Since 1985, LERA has investigated complaints about police conduct. It does not investigate criminal matters, police and the Crown do that.

The complaint came from a man driving a stolen car who was being chased by police. The stolen car hit a curb, blowing one of its tires. The man and a second person got out of the car and ran. Before the driver could get away a police car hit him from behind.

"The police said the man ran into the path of the police car as the police were attempting to contain the stolen vehicle," the report says. "The man said police stepped on his leg and that he was kicked in the back of the head during the arrest."

The man complained to LERA. Four officers were investigated for misconduct. Before a hearing date the complainant died. The complaint was dismissed.

LERA says complaints against police have generally dropped over the past five years, although LERA Commissioner George Wright says numbers were slightly up in 2009.

One possible reason for the drop in complaints is that law enforcement is now dealing with fewer youths stealing cars.

In 2004, 23 per cent of complaints to LERA came from youths under 18. It dropped to 10 per cent in 2008, a trend that continued in 2009 as Winnipeg recorded another year of fewer stolen cars. Auto theft has dropped by more than 70 per cent, resulting in 9,000 fewer vehicle thefts and attempted thefts in 2009 than took place in 2004.

We’ll find out in a few weeks if Katz will get his helicopter.

It could be up in the sky by the summer if the province agrees to contribute $1.3 million a year to operate it without diverting any cash from its existing contribution to police. The provincial budget is in March.

Oddly, the province has been kind of quiet, publicly at least, on where cabinet stands on Katz’s helicopter. Cabinet is probably more focused on a looming $600 million budget deficit as it comes out of 2009.

"Discussions are on-going between high-level officials from both the city and the province," is all a government spokesperson will say on the status of the helicopter.

"The city and the police have identified a police helicopter as a priority in fighting crime in Winnipeg. We rely on the expertise of the police. In the Throne Speech, we committed to helping them obtain a helicopter and we are working with the city to do just that."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca
 

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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