Winnipeg police duties don’t include reshaping the narrative

We have, it seems, a problem with oversight.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2022 (332 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We have, it seems, a problem with oversight.

Many observers, including a city councillor who this week resigned in dismay from the Winnipeg Police Board, think the Winnipeg Police Service requires more of it. The people who lead the service, including its top commander, Chief Danny Smyth, seem more inclined to believe it is already subjected to too much.

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) on Monday stepped away from the police board because “the board’s relationship with city council has become dysfunctional, with ongoing arguments over respective roles and jurisdictions.”

He urged the province — which is currently preparing legislation to reform the Police Services Act — to “consider other alternatives for civilian oversight of policing,” and in a subsequent interview said, “I don’t know if (the board is) a productive use of anyone’s time.”

Meanwhile, at a time when the WPS is under intense scrutiny for its handling of — or, some critics argue, its failure to handle — the anti-mandate protest/occupation that disrupted Winnipeg’s downtown for several weeks, Mr. Smyth and other top officials have opted to join a subscription-based U.S. online publishing platform in an effort to disseminate their perspectives on policing in an unfiltered and unchallenged manner.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth complains of an “ideological shift” and a “harshness about reporting on police that too often serves to undermine trust and confidence in policing.”

In a post on the WPS’s Substack page, which is titled “Tried and True,” Mr. Smyth opens by asking, “How do we tell our story? What is the best way to communicate with our employees … or with the public?” He acknowledges the service employs social-media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) to get its message out, but laments the manner in which the WPS is portrayed in more conventional media.

“There was a time when traditional/legacy media could be relied upon to tell a balanced story,” Mr. Smyth writes. “Sure, they could ask tough questions, but at the end of the day, they usually portrayed stories involving the police fairly. I am not so sure about that anymore.” He complains of an “ideological shift” and a “harshness about reporting on police that too often serves to undermine trust and confidence in policing.”

Substack, he concludes, is “worth a try” as a means to “tell our story.”

“There was a time when traditional/legacy media could be relied upon to tell a balanced story… Sure, they could ask tough questions, but at the end of the day, they usually portrayed stories involving the police fairly. I am not so sure about that anymore.” – Chief Danny Smyth

Except, it really isn’t “worth a try,” because the concern of the WPS should not be shaping public opinion in its favour by skirting traditional mechanisms of accountability and instead offering a concocted rendering of its “story” in a forum that is more familiarly used by creative writers and journalists seeking to be freed of editorial oversight.

The WPS’s concern should be protecting the public and, as it is afforded the discretion of employing force — up to and including the deadly variety when circumstances dictate — to do so, it should be fully willing to answer publicly for the actions it takes in upholding the law.

Mr. Smyth can be excused for feeling the glare of the public-accountability spotlight has grown exponentially more intense. Particularly after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, law-enforcement practices everywhere have been analyzed and criticized, and large-scale protests have called for the “defunding” of police services as they are currently configured.

Particularly after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, law-enforcement practices everywhere have been analyzed and criticized, and large-scale protests have called for the “defunding” of police services as they are currently configured.

But the response to such scrutiny should be dialogue, reflection and reform, not a defensive retreat to a bunker from which glorified blog posts are dispatched in the hope of “telling our story.” Police behaviour itself, not media reporting about it, will dictate public opinion.

By dint of its role as a protector of citizens, the WPS must be fully accountable. The promised legislative reforms must create the mechanisms that assure it is, and its top officer should focus on reforming WPS practices accordingly rather than defiantly seeking to reshape the narrative.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The WPS is under intense scrutiny for its handling of — or, some critics argue, its failure to handle — the anti-mandate protest/occupation that disrupted Winnipeg’s downtown for several weeks.
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