Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Health care cuts murder rate

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Emergency medical care should get a big part of the credit in explaining the good news of a declining murder rate across most of Canada.

Recent numbers tell us the rate of homicide has dropped to a level not seen since the mid-1960s. But do those numbers make sense when other stats say seriously violent crime -- that can result in death -- is a continuing concern?

In the last 10 years, aggravated assaults have jumped 20 per cent and assaults with weapons have increased by 14 per cent. That's on top of increases in the decade previous.

Whether murders are up, down or sideways, we tend to look to the social sciences for answers. Criminologist Neil Boyd from Simon Fraser University, for example, says changing demographics may hold the key to the national decline in murder.

"We have fewer young men in the population, about half as many as in the late '70s and early '80s," Boyd says. "When you get a decline in the percentage of young men in any population, you can expect to get a decline in rates of crime and rates of violent crime."

While his explanation doesn't address the reported increases in aggravated and weapon assaults, he also considers the drop in murders may just be a "random fluctuation" and not particularly noteworthy (just as the rocketing of Winnipeg's 2011 homicide number will likely be written off as a blip).

In any event, seeking answers to Canada's downward trend in homicide from social scientists may not be nearly as fruitful as looking to the more definitive and practical world of medical science.

Simply put, murders are down but murderous acts are not. So more than anything, improved emergency medical care may explain why the homicide rate is in decline instead of exploding.

There are fewer murder victims because of doctors, nurses, paramedics and fire department first responders. They are the ones with the intuition, savvy, equipment, education and training that battle death with medical advances that simply weren't available back in murder's heyday.

It wasn't that long ago that an ambulance was little more than a souped-up meat wagon with a cherry on top. The attendants' focus was on rendering some immediate first aid and getting the patient to a hospital fast.

Today's ambulances are mini-hospitals manned by personnel with extensive medical and triage know-how, and first responders have superlative life-saving training that was less apparent in fire halls 40 years ago.

Thanks to the actions of medical professionals working the streets, some of those unfortunate victims who would have succumbed to injury 20 or 30 years ago are transported to hospital with a fighting chance.

The rescue from death's doorstep continues with the dedicated hospital pros who implement more of the advanced procedures and protocols needed to secure the best outcomes.

There are dozens of examples here in Winnipeg. The Free Press last week alone raised two cases that were a heartbeat away from murder (and would have been back in the day).

In one, a 2008 Halloween swarming left a man permanently brain-damaged after he was attacked with weapons, fists and feet. A firefighter, who lived nearby, rushed to the man's aid and used his training to literally keep him alive until ambulance personnel arrived and got him to hospital.

The second story told of a young man made paraplegic when a knife was plunged into his neck. And like so many other stories, it was just a millimetre, a bit of luck and medical care that kept this one out of the murder column.

The medical community, especially its front line, is often the subject of some pretty harsh commentary, perhaps nowhere more than in Winnipeg, as the case of Brian Sinclair, who died in the Health Sciences Centre emergency department waiting room, continues to rev up. A civil suit filed by Sinclair's family describes that hospital's emergency room as a "public nuisance."

Nonsense. The Sinclair case is tragic but it hardly undoes all the good the HSC emergency room has brought to thousands of people, including the scores who are breathing today instead of being just another dead stat.

A tip of the hat is long overdue to all levels of the medical community and an extra little thank you for the unrecognized work that's helped to keep Canada's murder rate mostly stable.




Robert Marshall is a retired



Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2011 J11

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