Petition to defund Winnipeg police gains momentum

Winnipeg's black community has joined a growing number of voices across North America calling for the defunding of local police — a move, if done suddenly, could put public safety at risk, the city's police chief says.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/06/2020 (914 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg’s black community has joined a growing number of voices across North America calling for the defunding of local police — a move, if done suddenly, could put public safety at risk, the city’s police chief says.

“If you were to just rip (out) a large segment of the (police) budget all at once, then I think you would be putting our environment into a more volatile place than it is now,” WPS Chief Danny Smyth said Monday.

George Floyd, a black man, died May 25, after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis. His death set off waves of protest against racial injustice and police brutality around the world, including last Friday’s rally in Winnipeg.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 25,000 people had signed a Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg petition calling for “complete abolition and defunding of the Winnipeg Police Service.”

“I think we need to rethink what community safety means, and who is safe and who is being over-policed,” said Alexa Joy, founder of grassroots organization Black Space Winnipeg.

“We know this isn’t happening in Charleswood or Wellington Crescent… over-policing is happening predominantly in inner city, Indigenous, newcomer, Afro-newcomer and black communities — that’s just the reality.”

A majority of Minneapolis city councillors have now pledged to disband their city’s police department. A Toronto city councillor submitted a motion to cut that city’s police funding by 10 per cent, as protesters call for the same changes in other major centres.

Smyth said the concept of taking money out of the police budget to instead invest in social service agencies could prove especially challenging in Winnipeg.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Police chief Danny Smyth said the concept of taking money out of the police budget to instead invest in social service agencies could prove especially challenging in Winnipeg.

“We have social workers on our staff, they won’t attend (incidents) unless we’re with them. Many of our own paramedics won’t attend calls unless we’re with them to ensure their safety… It’s a little bit too early to just say defund the police and funnel it all back to social services,” the chief said.

The WPS budget — proposed at $304.1 million for 2020 — comprises more than one-quarter of the municipality’s total spending, a percentage that has been on the rise for the last decade.

University of Winnipeg criminologist Kevin Walby said there is room for some of that spending, particularly in officer benefits such as overtime pay, acting pay and shift premiums, to be whittled away.

“It actually is something all Winnipeggers should ask themselves: do we want a third of the municipal budget going to policing, or should we take some of that money and put it into our communities in ways that actually alleviate distress, and might help people out more than policing does?” Walby said.

Smyth said Monday police have taken on more social service roles themselves over recent years, such as searching for missing children and assisting those who face addictions and/or mental health issues.

“It actually is something all Winnipeggers should ask themselves: do we want a third of the municipal budget going to policing, or should we take some of that money and put it into our communities in ways that actually alleviate distress, and might help people out more than policing does?” – Criminologist Kevin Walby

However, Joy criticized such involvement, noting “wellness checks” — when police respond to calls involving mental health concerns — have resulted in the deaths of black and Indigenous people throughout the country.

In February 2019, Winnipeg police shot and killed 43-year-old South Sudanese man Machuar Madut, after responding to a call regarding a mental health crisis. In Edmunston. N.B., police shot and killed 26-year-old Indigenous woman Chantel Moore during a wellness check last week.

“They see black people and grab their guns,” Joy said. “They don’t call for support; that’s their support, is to draw a weapon.”

Walby noted funding allocated to police could be reinvested into community groups such as the volunteer patrol Bear Clan, which is already positioned to provide social supports.

“Police need to listen to the community and really hear what they’re saying. The point is to take some of the funds from the police budget and move them directly into funding for the community social development groups to try to address transgression, harm and conflict in our community differently, and to support Winnipeggers and Manitobans in a way police do not,” Walby said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "We need to look at that model of crime prevention through social development," said Coun. Markus Chambers

Joy, too, noted specific examples, saying funds could be redirected into initiatives such as “specific programming and resources for black communities, for black mental health, to revamp what after-school programs look like, and what arts programs do with youth.”

At city hall, the deputy mayor added his voice in favour of more social service supports.

“We need to look at that model of crime prevention through social development,” said Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), a member of the Winnipeg Police Board.

In an email late Monday afternoon, Mayor Brian Bowman’s office wrote: “The mayor believes that if the provincial and federal governments were more effective at addressing areas of need within their jurisdictions, the Winnipeg Police Service budget could be reduced substantially. It is noteworthy that substantial cost drivers for policing services relate to areas of provincial jurisdiction, notably mental health, addictions, housing and families in crisis.”

The province has long stated it has made substantial investments in those areas, such as new addictions beds and clinics.

However, Joy said investments in community supports should be focused where they’re needed: in groups that directly support, hire and train members of marginalized communities.

julia-simone.rutgers@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jsrutgers

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers
Reporter

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a climate reporter with a focus on environmental issues in Manitoba. Her position is part of a three-year partnership between the Winnipeg Free Press and The Narwhal, funded by the Winnipeg Foundation.

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Updated on Monday, June 8, 2020 10:42 PM CDT: Typo fixed.

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