Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Deal with crime wave's root causes

Jails, helicopters and more police won't save city

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It's been a week of strange coincidences and overlapping narratives.

First, the top-of-mind news.

Winnipeg is suffering through a violent-crime spree. Following a horrific sexual assault of a six-year-old girl, the city's West End has been ravaged by a series of shootings. In one, a boy with gang connections was shot and killed on Toronto Street; in the other, two girls (one 10, the other just eight years old) were hit with random gunfire as they played in the front room of their Victor Street home. Police and political leaders are reacting with predictable outrage. Mayor Sam Katz told CBC Radio he wanted Winnipeggers to muster all the anger and outrage they could and send it to Ottawa to let federal MPs know there must be more severe penalties for violent criminals.

Yes, that is what we need right now. More cops on the street, longer prison sentences. And police helicopters. That will stop sociopathic gang members from gunning each other down.

Oddly, after hearing Katz's comments, a series of other, seemingly unrelated stories come to mind. Like how the federal Conservative government is spending nearly $1 billion on security for the G8 and G20 summits, both being held in Ontario this summer. It is an outrageous sum, many times more than anyone has ever spent on security at a global summit.

Next, we hear from the Manitoba Ombudsman that the province is failing miserably to provide the resources necessary to help people transition from welfare to the workforce. In some cases, the province would not provide welfare recipients with a telephone, a critical tool in a job search.

And finally, the Manitoba Teachers' Society released a survey of its members that showed stress levels were reaching crisis proportions because of a lack of special needs resources and rapidly increasing class sizes that are preventing them from helping kids who need it the most.

What do all these stories have in common with Winnipeg's shameful crime spree? Together they form a damning picture of this country's priorities and our nearly complete inability to deal with the root causes of our problems.

Oxfam Canada issued a statement lambasting the federal government for its G8/G20 security spending spree while at the same time cutting foreign aid. "It just speaks to our priorities," said Oxfam executive director Robert Fox, "and the fact that when we choose to, we can mobilize resources and when there is a lack of political will, we fall short."

Oxfam is primarily interested in seeing more money directed to foreign aid. But Fox's comments about priorities and mobilizing resources where the will exists are relevant to all of the stories discussed above.

Obviously, the G8 and G20 must be secured. But what kind of impact would $1 billion have if it were used to help welfare recipients find jobs, or to shrink class sizes and hire more teachers to give vulnerable students more one-on-one attention? Most political leaders would agree that both of those things would probably help more people escape poverty, dysfunction and, ultimately, an appetite for violence.

If a massive injection of money could help reduce the number of random gun-related crimes, would that be a good use of $1 billion? Wouldn't an extra $1 billion for education reduce crime by saving children before they choose a life of crime?

It has been said before in this space, and it will be said again: The plural of anecdote is not data. A series of violent events that transpire over the course of a few days is not evidence the city is being overrun by gangs. It is a evidence that we have done a poor job of attacking the root causes of crime.

Crime is a wildly unpredictable, constantly evolving social condition. It is fundamentally motivated and influenced by a range of broader social conditions that include poverty, family dysfunction, substance abuse and a shortage of economic opportunity.

The many and varied root causes, along with evolving patterns of crime, mean that no single solution will reduce or prevent it. That would require a broad, preventative approach and robust resources, both of which are in short supply.

Unfortunately, a West End shooting spree that occurs a few months before a civic election and, possibly, a federal election, is no time to discuss broad policies to tackle crime.

At a time like this, it's a lot safer to retreat to the convenient responses: more police officers, longer prison sentences and, if you're Winnipeg city council, police helicopters to chase down jobless, under-educated and disaffected youth after they have turned to a life of crime.

And security. Lots and lots of security.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2010 A4

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