Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Will this fly?

Mayor's got own agenda for wanting police chopper

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In 2001, a police officer and a civilian pilot landed their helicopter in a dirt field outside a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in Albuquerque, N.M., and picked up a box of double-glazed goodies.

At the time, this was just one of those weird news stories that managed to get a somewhat obscure city with a funny name — Albuquerque is kind of like Winnipeg in that respect — onto the second-page slot reserved for oddities in newspapers around North America.

As I look back on the Krispy Kreme incident, which took up three inches of space in the Free Press a few weeks after 9/11, I realize the universe was trying to tell me something.

For starters, I should have eaten more Krispy Kremes before the doughnut chain’s sole North Dakota store closed in Fargo on New Year’s Eve, 2007. The Albuquerque shop apparently closed as well.

But more importantly, I should have played Nostradamus and prognosticated that two of the biggest circus sideshows... er, make that news stories... in early 2010 in Winnipeg would be the purchase of a police helicopter and the physical fitness of roughly 1,300 members of the Winnipeg Police Service.

As most Winnipeggers are aware, 2010 is a civic election year. Right now, Mayor Sam Katz faces little in the way of opposition — with apologies to Elmwood Coun. Lillian Thomas — but is smart enough to know he can’t get complacent. He needs to offer voters something in the way of imaginative public policy.

Enter the police whirlybird, a proposal that initially emerged in 2009 as one of those punchlines no serious city hall watcher would believe.

Katz says the credit for the ’copter proposal lies with police Chief Keith McCaskill. For months, the mayor has been saying the police chief wants a helicopter, so we’d better listen to the chief and give him one.

Of course, that isn’t true. The chief has said repeatedly he wasn’t convinced a helicopter was a good idea until two of his officers studied the benefits. And those officers didn’t conduct their research until they were asked to do so by the chief — following a request from none other than Mayor Sam Katz.

As readers of this newspaper also know, the police service and the mayor were at first reluctant to release any studies about the benefits of the aircraft. The mayor went as far as to claim he had no idea whether any actual research into the proposed $3.5-million purchase was undertaken, a preposterous claim made only to avoid the appearance of prodding Premier Greg Selinger into supporting the aircraft purchase in public.

The chief then did a flurry of interviews. The police service held a Christmas-week press conference. And a thin 12-page report was finally made public this month, although it was skewered by an Ontario criminologist whose work was cited liberally to justify the aircraft purchase.

After several months of doublespeak, what do we actually know? Well, it’s now clear a police helicopter could be a useful addition to the police-service arsenal, but will do little to reduce or prevent crime. The city considers it a luxury item, not a necessity. And the proof lies in council’s refusal to buy the machine if they have to divert a single penny from other areas of the police budget to fund the annual $1.3-million operating cost.

If councillors thought the helicopter was vital to policing, they would buy the vehicle, no matter what.

I’m not trying to suggest a  helicopter is no more important to policing than a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

But it’s obvious our mayor — with the complicity of the premier, who desperately needed something sexy to put into his dour November throne speech — is pushing the whirlybird because he wants to retain his popularity.

It’s just like that $7-million grant for a water park. Or the closed-circuit TV cameras downtown. Or the unconstitutional bans on spray paint and on asking for money at bus stops. 

They’re all populist measures the mayor has attempted to sell to the public. He apparently believes we really do prefer circuses to bread.

Without a poll, I don’t know how many Winnipeggers are buying his helicopter sales job. But I doubt many members of the Winnipeg Police Service are impressed.

Police officers work hard at a difficult and often thankless job. They don’t like being used as political poker chips. And they’re embarrassed by fluffy confections masquerading as police necessities — and I’m not talking about a box of idiotically purchased doughnuts.

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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