Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Move from blind hate towards a prevention-focused approach

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What is it about July that brings out the worst in us?

A year ago, Winnipeggers endured a month from hell; a July teeming with the kind of violence that shocks even the most cynical. Before it was over, three citizens would lose their lives in high-profile incidents that were analyzed and anguished over for weeks in local media: two-year-old Gage Guimond, fatally injured by a fall down the stairs shortly after being removed from a stable foster home and placed in the care of a distant relative by child and family services; 58-year-old James Duane, mowed down while riding his bike to the store by teenagers joyriding in a stolen car; and 36-year-old Kristi Hall, beaten and stabbed to death by three strangers (two of them 15-year-old girls) simply because she happened to be standing outside her apartment building.

It was enough to make a person start avoiding the news altogether, for fear of what would come next.

A year later, and here we go again.

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released its 2007 crime rate data. As it turns out, most crime rates were down, but there was bad news, too: It seems Winnipeg has regained its notorious "Murder Capital of Canada" title, while Manitoba's attempted murder rate jumped by a whopping 53 per cent.

True, reading a statistic does not pack the same emotional punch as news of a disturbing death (although obviously, behind every homicide is a flesh-and-blood person who was loved dearly by someone) -- that came five days later, when 17-year-old Michael Langan died after being shot with a Taser by police officers.

The politics of Taser use aside, Langan's tragic death reopened several wounds that exist in our city and that never seem to heal. The obvious one is racism and its effect on our ability to get along with each other. Case in point: Regardless of whether or not racial profiling played any role in this incident (and I'm inclined to think it didn't), the reactions expressed publicly in the days after it happened showcased a maddening amount of intolerance and bigotry.

Friendly Manitoba, my eye.

Langan's death also shone a spotlight on the increasingly rocky relationship between our city's police force and the citizens it's tasked with serving and protecting -- one that's been exacerbated by recent revelations coming out of the Taman inquiry. Simply put, it's getting harder and harder to give the benefit of doubt to a group of armed authority figures that, at times, seems hell-bent on undermining our trust at every turn -- even if logically, we can understand that the majority of individuals within that group are well-meaning, caring people doing the best they can in what are often high-stress circumstances.

One such situation played itself out in broad daylight on a downtown street earlier this week, ending the month on yet another low note, when shots were fired into a passing vehicle, allegedly by gang associates. Thankfully, no one was injured (although area residents were justifiably rattled), but my heart sank all the same when a 14-year-old boy was one of two people subsequently arrested. Tragedy is tragedy, even if everybody lives.

So where do we go from here?

Hopefully, away from blind hate and the kind of knee-jerk outrage and blame that poisons everything and accomplishes nothing.

Hopefully, towards a prevention-focused approach to crime reduction that, while expensive and time-consuming, has the potential to yield extremely positive results, if only we'd get serious about it and actually invest the kind of money that's usually reserved for funding new prisons -- or new stadiums.

And hopefully, towards an understanding that crime doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Poverty, mental illness, addiction and abuse play a role.

Ultimately, to move forward, we need to start learning from the past and doing things differently.

Maybe then, next July, we won't have to look back and wonder what went wrong.

writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2008

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