Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Right-size police still a mystery

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The 2012 statistical report from the Winnipeg Police Service confirms trends that have been observed across the country for decades. Violent crime and crime in general are declining, not just year-over-year, but compared to the previous five-year average. Statistics Canada also reported Thursday the crime rate has reached its lowest level since 1972.

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The usual explanations are that better policing, more police officers and a demographic shift that has resulted in fewer young people (especially males) as a percentage of the total population are responsible for the decline.

In Winnipeg, this trend raises continuing questions about whether the city is over-policed and if resources are properly deployed.

Nationally, critics have been questioning whether the Harper government's tough-on crime agenda is the right policy for the times. In fact, some Conservative policies, such as tougher penalties for child abuse, are valid even in a low-crime environment. Other programs, such as stiffer penalties for pot growers when demands for decriminalization are rising, are counter-productive and will lead to more young people being incarcerated needlessly.

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis says he believes he has the right number of officers -- 1,442 -- even though still more officers are scheduled to join the force as a result of promises made by the NDP in the last election.

Chief Clunis said he may decide to use that funding to hire more civilians, which are necessary for the rising mountains of paperwork and other clerical and court duties that are part of the complex world of policing today, rather than more men and women in blue.

It's unclear if the Selinger government would accept such a compromise, but the chief said everything is always up for negotiation.

An external review of the police service is nearing completion. Hopefully it will provide some useful insights into how the force might deploy its resources for maximum effect, assuming that is not already the case.

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The review might also explain if Winnipeg is justified in having one of the highest proportions of police officers in Canada. The value of this investment -- $240 million this year or 26 per cent of the city's budget -- makes it a high-priority issue, since the rising cost of policing is not sustainable.

There is no doubt that law enforcement is more time-consuming today. The rise of gangs and commercial crime demand complex investigations, while legal precedents require police to hand over volumes of documents and evidence to the defence under the principle of full disclosure.

Winnipeg, moreover, is still one of the country's most violent communities on a per-capita basis, despite the downward trend, so there might be a valid argument for retaining a large force.

In terms of downtown safety, Chief Clunis said statistics show people should not be concerned and that most violent crimes in the area are not stranger assaults, but his conclusion is a bit of a stretch.

There might be a slight decline along the Portage Avenue commercial district, but statistics for the area have only been compiled for the last two years.

Moreover, it's not just the fear of violence that fuels the perception problem, but the large number of roaming homeless and forlorn people who create an environment of fear, even if they aren't committing serious crimes.

This phenomenon doesn't show up on the police blotter. In fact, it's likely that many minor assaults and crimes are not even reported to police.

But as Chief Clunis and others before him have said, police alone cannot solve the city's social problems.

The whole village must get involved to promote a safer and healthy community, he says, which is something everyone should get behind.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2013 A10

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